Early Christianity has its roots in Hellenistic Judaism and Jewish messianism of the first century. It started with Jewish eschatological expectations, and developed into the veneration of a deified Jesus after his earthly ministry, his crucifixion, and post-crucifixion experiences of his followers.
Early on, a number of related but divergent Christian communities and interpretations of the eschaton and Jesus' life and death developed during the first and early second century CE, which gradually departed from the Pharisees and other Jewish sects. From the former eventually arose "orthodox" Christianity, while the latter developed into Rabbinic Judaism.
Christianity arose in the syncretistic Hellenistic world of the first century CE, which was dominated by Roman law and Greek culture.Hellenistic culture had a profound impact on the customs and practices of Jews, both in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora. The inroads into Judaism gave rise to Hellenistic Judaism in the Jewish diaspora which sought to establish a Hebraic-Jewish religious tradition within the culture and language of Hellenism.
Hellenistic Judaism spread to Ptolemaic Egypt from the 3rd century BCE, and became a notable religio licita after the Roman conquest of Greece, Anatolia, Syria, Judea, and Egypt, until its decline in the 3rd century parallel to the rise of Gnosticism and Early Christianity.
According to Burton Mack, the Christian vision of Jesus' death for the redemption of mankind was only possible in a Hellenised milieu.[note 1] According to Price, "Once it reached Hellenistic soil, the story of Jesus attracted to itself a number of mythic motifs that were common to the syncretic religious mood of the era."[note 2]
Judaism at this time was divided into antagonistic factions. The main camps were the Pharisees, Saducees, and Zealots, but also included other less influential sects, like the Essenes. The 1st century BCE and 1st century CE saw a number of charismatic religious leaders, contributing to what would become the Mishnah of Rabbinic Judaism, including Yohanan ben Zakkai and Hanina ben Dosa. The ministry of Jesus, according to the account of the Gospels, falls into this pattern of sectarian preachers or teachers with devoted disciples (students).
Although the gospels contain strong condemnations of the Pharisees, Paul the Apostle claims proudly to be a Pharisee, and there is a clear influence of Hillel's interpretation of the Torah in the Gospel-sayings. Belief in the resurrection of the dead in the messianic age was a core Pharisaic doctrine.
There is widespread disagreement among scholars on the details of the life of Jesus mentioned in the gospel narratives, and on the meaning of his teachings. Scholars often draw a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and two different accounts can be found in this regard.
According to Christian denominations the bodily resurrection of Jesus after his death is the pivotal event of Jesus' life and death, as described in the gospels and the epistles. According to the gospels, written decades after the events of his life, Jesus preached for a period of one to three years in the early 1st century. His ministry of teaching, healing the sick and disabled and performing various miracles culminated in his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. After his death, he appeared to his followers, resurrected from death. After forty days he ascended to Heaven, but his followers believed he would soon return to usher in the Kingdom of God and fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment.
Critical scholarship has stripped away most narratives about Jesus as legendary, and the mainstream historical view is that while the gospels include many legendary elements, these are religious elaborations added to the accounts of a historical Jesus who was crucified under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate in the 1st-century Roman province of Judea. His remaining disciples later believed that he was resurrected.
Five portraits of the historical Jesus are supported by mainstream scholars, namely the apocalyptic prophet,[note 3] the charismatic healer, the Cynic philosopher, the Jewish Messiah, and the prophet of social change.
Early Christians regarded Jesus to be the Messiah, the promised king who would restore the Jewish kingdom and independence.
Jewish messianism has its root in the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd century BCE to 1st century BCE, promising a future "anointed" leader or messiah to restore the Israelite "Kingdom of God", in place of the foreign rulers of the time. This corresponded with the Maccabean Revolt directed against the Seleucids. Following the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom, it was directed against the Roman administration of Judea Province, which, according to Josephus, began with the formation of the Zealots and Sicarii during the Census of Quirinius (6 CE), although full scale open revolt did not occur till the First Jewish-Roman War in 66 CE.
According to the New Testament, some Christians reported that they encountered Jesus after his crucifixion. They argued that he had been resurrected (belief in the resurrection of the dead in the messianic age was a core Pharisaic doctrine), and would soon return to usher in the Kingdom of God and fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment.
1 Corinthians 15:3-9 gives an early testimony, which was delivered to Paul, of the atonement of Jesus and the appearances of the risen Christ to "Cephas and the twelve", and to "James [...] and all the apostles", possibly reflecting a fusion of two early Christian groups:
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures;
5 and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve;
6 then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep;
7 then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles;
8 and last of all, as to the [child] untimely born, he appeared to me also.
According to Geza Vermes, the concept of resurrection formed "the initial stage of the belief in his exaltation", which is "the apogee of the triumphant Christ". The focal concern of the early communities is the expected return of Jesus, and the entry of the believers into the kingdom of God with a transformed body.
According to Ehrman, the resurrection experiences were a denial response to his disciples' sudden disillusionment following Jesus' death. According to Ehrman, some of his followers claimed to have seen him alive again, resulting in a multitude of stories which convinced others that Jesus had risen from death and was exalted to Heaven.[note 4]
According to Paula Fredriksen, Jesus's impact on his followers was so great that they could not accept the failure implicit in his death. According to Fredricksen, before his death Jesus created amongst his believers such certainty that the Kingdom of God and the resurrection of the dead was at hand, that with few exceptions (John 20: 24-29) when they saw him shortly after his execution, they had no doubt that he had been resurrected, and the general resurrection of the dead was at hand. These specific beliefs were compatible with Second Temple Judaism.
According to Johan Leman, the resurrection must be understood as a sense of presence of Jesus even after his death, especially during the ritual meals which were continued after his death. His early followers regarded him as a righteous man and prophet, who was therefore resurrected and exalted. In time, Messianistic, Isaiahic, apocalyptic and eschatological expectations were blended in the experience and understanding of Jesus, who came to be expected to return to earth.
A point of debate is how Christians came to believe in a bodily resurrection, which was "a comparatively recent development within Judaism." According to Dag Øistein Endsjø, "The notion of the resurrection of the flesh was, as we have seen, not unknown to certain parts of Judaism in antiquity", but Paul rejected the idea of bodily resurrection, and it also can't be found within the strands of Jewish thought in which he was formed. According to Porter, Hayes and Tombs, the Jewish tradition emphasizes a continued spiritual existence rather than a bodily resurrection.
Nevertheless, the origin of this idea is commonly traced to Jewish beliefs, a view against which Stanley E. Porter objected. According to Porter, Jewish and subsequent Christian thought were influenced by Greek thoughts, were "assumptions regarding resurrection" can be found, which were probably adopted by Paul.[note 5] According to Ehrman, most of the alleged parallels between Jesus and the pagan savior-gods only exist in the modern imagination, and there are no "accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead."
According to Ehrman, a central question in the research on Jesus and early Christianity is how a human came to be deified in a relatively short time. Jewish Christians like the Ebionites had an Adoptionist Christology and regarded Jesus as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity, while other strands of Christian thought regard Jesus to be a "fully divine figure", a so-called "high Christology". How soon the earthly Jesus was regarded to be the incarnation of God is a matter of scholarly debate.
5 Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
6 who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men;
8 and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient [even] unto death, yea, the death of the cross.
9 Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name;
10 that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of [things] in heaven and [things] on earth and [things] under the earth,
11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
According to Dunn, the background of this hymn has been strongly debated. Some see it as influenced by a Greek worldview.[note 6] while others have argued for Jewish influences. According to Dunn, the hymn contains a contrast with the sins of Adam and his disobedience. Dunn further notes that the hymn may be seen as a three-stage Christology, starting with "an earlier stage of mythic pre-history or pre-existence," but regards the humility-exaltation contrast to be the main theme.
This belief in the incarnated and exalted Christ was part of Christian tradition a few years after his death and over a decade before the writing of the Pauline epistles. According to Dunn, the background of this hymn has been strongly debated. Some see it as influenced by a Greek worldview,[note 7]
According to the History of religions school there were various early Christian communities, Jewish Christian, Hellenistic Jewish Christian, and Gentile Christian, from which the belief in a fully divine Christ emerged, under the influence of mystery-cults in the Greek world. According to Burton L. Mack the early Christian communities started with so-called "Jesus movements" new religious movements centering on a human teacher called Jesus. A number of these "Jesus movements" can be discerned in early Christian writings. According to Mack, within these Jesus-movements developed within 25 years the belief that Jesus was the Messiah, and had risen from death.
According to Erhman, the gospels show a development from a "low Christology" towards a "high Christology". Yet, a "high Christology" seems to have been part of Christian traditions a few years after his death, and over a decade before the writing of the Pauline epistles, which are the oldest Christian writings. According to Martin Hengel, as summarized by Jeremy Bouma, the letters of Paul already contain a fully developed Christology, shortly after the death of Jesus, including references to his pre-existence According to Hengel, the Gospel of John shows a development which builds on this early high Christology, fusing it with Jewish wisdom traditions, in which Wisdom was personified an descended into the world. While this "Logos Christology" is recognizable for Greek metaphysics, it is nevertheless not derived from pagan sources, and Hengel rejects the idea of influence from "Hellenistic mystery cults or a Gnostic redeemer myth".
According to Ehrman, a number of early Christianities existed in the first century CE, from which developed various Christian traditions and denominations, including proto-orthodoxy. According to Dunn, four types of early Christianity can be discerned: Jewish Christianity, Hellenistic Christianity, Apocalyptic Christianity, and early Catholicism.
The Pauline letters incorporate creeds, or confessions of faith, of a belief in an exalted Christ that predate Paul, and give essential information on the faith of the early Jerusalem Church around James, 'the brother of Jesus'. This group venerated the risen Christ, who had appeared to several persons, as in Philippians 2:6-11, the so-called Christ hymn, which portrays Jesus as an incarnated and subsequently exalted heavenly being.
The Ebionites were a Jewish Christian movement that existed during the early centuries of the Christian Era. They regarded Jesus as the Messiah while rejecting his divinity and his virgin birth, and insisted on the necessity of following Jewish law and rites. They used the Gospel of the Ebionites, one of the Jewish-Christian gospels; the Hebrew Book of Matthew starting at chapter 3; revered James the brother of Jesus (James the Just); and rejected Paul the Apostle as an apostate from the Law.
Distinctive features of the Gospel of the Ebionites include the absence of the virgin birth and of the genealogy of Jesus; an Adoptionist Christology,[note 8] in which Jesus is chosen to be God's Son at the time of his Baptism; the abolition of the Jewish sacrifices by Jesus; and an advocacy of vegetarianism.[note 9]
The Nazarenes originated as a sect of first-century Judaism. The first use of the term "sect of the Nazarenes" is in the Book of Acts in the New Testament, where Paul is accused of being a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes (" ").[note 10] The term then simply designated followers of "Yeshua Natzri" (Jesus the Nazarene),[note 11] but in the first to fourth centuries the term was used for a sect of followers of Jesus who were closer to Judaism than most Christians. They are described by Epiphanius of Salamis and are mentioned later by Jerome and Augustine of Hippo, who made a distinction between the Nazarenes of their time and the "Nazarenes" mentioned in Acts 24:5.[note 12]
The Nazarenes were similar to the Ebionites, in that they considered themselves Jews, maintained an adherence to the Law of Moses, and used only the Aramaic Gospel of the Hebrews, rejecting all the Canonical gospels. However, unlike half of the Ebionites, they accepted the Virgin Birth.
The Gospel of the Hebrews was a syncretic Jewish-Christian gospel, the text of which is lost; only fragments of it survive as brief quotations by the early Church Fathers and in apocryphal writings. The fragments contain traditions of Jesus' pre-existence, incarnation, baptism, and probable temptation, along with some of his sayings. Distinctive features include a Christology characterized by the belief that the Holy Spirit is Jesus' Divine Mother; and a first resurrection appearance to James, the brother of Jesus, showing a high regard for James as the leader of the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. It was probably composed in Greek in the first decades of the 2nd century, and is believed to have been used by Greek-speaking Jewish Christians in Egypt during that century.
The Apostle Paul presents, in his epistles, a Hellenised Christianity.[note 13] According to Ehrman, "Paul's message, in a nutshell, was a Jewish apocalyptic proclamation with a seriously Christian twist."
The early Christian community in Jerusalem, led by James the Just, had a strong influence on Paul. Fragments of their beliefs in an exalted and deified Jesus, what Mack called the "Christ cult," can be found in the writings of Paul.[note 14] According to the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus first persecuted the early Jewish Christians, but then converted. He adopted the name Paul and started proselytizing among the Gentiles, adopting the title "Apostle to the Gentiles." He persuaded the leaders of the Jerusalem Church to allow Gentile converts exemption from most Jewish commandments at the Council of Jerusalem, which opened the way for a much larger Christian Church, extending far beyond the Jewish community.
While Paul was inspired by the early Christian apostles, his writings elaborate on their teachings, and also give interpretations which are different from other teachings as documented in the canonical gospels, early Acts and the rest of the New Testament, such as the Epistle of James.
Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin has argued that Paul's theology of the spirit is more deeply rooted in Hellenistic Judaism than generally believed. In A Radical Jew, Boyarin argues that the Apostle Paul combined the life of Jesus with Greek philosophy to reinterpret the Hebrew Bible in terms of the Platonic opposition between the ideal (which is real) and the material (which is false). Judaism is a material religion, in which membership is based not on belief but rather descent from Abraham, physically marked by circumcision, and focusing on how to live this life properly. Paul saw in the symbol of a resurrected Jesus the possibility of a spiritual rather than corporeal messiah. He used this notion of messiah to argue for a religion through which all people -- not just descendants of Abraham -- could worship the God of Abraham. Unlike Judaism, which holds that it is the proper religion only of the Jews, Pauline Christianity claimed to be the proper religion for all people.
By appealing to the Platonic distinction between the material and the ideal, Paul showed how the spirit of Christ could provide all people a way to worship the God who had previously been worshipped only by Jews and Jewish proselytes, although Jews claimed that he was the one and only God of all. Boyarin roots Paul's work in Hellenistic Judaism and insists that Paul was thoroughly Jewish, but argues that Pauline theology made his version of Christianity appealing to Gentiles. Boyarin also sees this Platonic reworking of both Jesus's teachings and Pharisaic Judaism as essential to the emergence of Christianity as a distinct religion, because it justified a Judaism without Jewish law.
Marcionism was an Early Christian dualist belief system that originated in the teachings of Marcion of Sinope at Rome around the year 144. Marcion asserted that Paul was the only apostle who had rightly understood the new message of salvation as delivered by Christ.
Marcion believed Jesus was the savior sent by God, and Paul the Apostle was his chief apostle, but he rejected the Hebrew Bible and the God of Israel. Marcionists believed that the wrathful Hebrew God was a separate and lower entity than the all-forgiving God of the New Testament. This belief was in some ways similar to Gnostic Christian theology; notably, both are dualistic, that is, they posit opposing gods, forces, or principles: one higher, spiritual, and "good", and the other lower, material, and "evil" (compare Manichaeism). This dualism stands in contrast to other Christian and Jewish views that "evil" has no independent existence, but is a privation or lack of "good", a view shared by the Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides.
Several Jewish sects are known to have existed during the 1st century CE: the Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and Christians. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, most of these sects vanished, but Christianity and the Pharisees survived, with Christianity gradually becoming a separate religion, and the Pharisees developing into Rabbinic Judaism, or simply Judaism.[note 15] Rather than a sudden split, there was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews in the 1st centuries, and it took centuries for a complete break to manifest.
According to historian Shaye Cohen, the separation of Christianity from Judaism was a process, not an event, in which the church was becoming more and more gentile, and less and less Jewish. According to Cohen, early Christianity ceased to be a Jewish sect when it ceased to observe Jewish practices. According to Cohen, most of Jesus' teachings were intelligible and acceptable in terms of Second Temple Judaism; what set Christians apart from Jews was their faith in Christ as the resurrected messiah. Belief in a resurrected messiah is unacceptable to Rabbinic Judaism, and Jewish authorities have long used this to explain the break between Judaism and Christianity. Jesus' failure to establish the Kingdom of God and his death at the hands of the Romans invalidated his messianic claims for Hellenistic Jews (see for comparison: prophet and false prophet).
According to Cohen, this process ended in 70 CE, after the first Jewish-Roman war, when various Jewish sects disappeared and Pharisaic Judaism evolved into Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerged as a distinct religion. Many historians argue that the gospels took their final form after the Great Revolt and the destruction of the Temple, although some scholars put the authorship of Mark in the 60s, and need to be understood in this context. They view Christians as much as Pharisees as being competing movements within Judaism that decisively broke only after the Bar Kokhba's revolt, when the successors of the Pharisees claimed hegemony over all Judaism, and - at least from the Jewish perspective - Christianity emerged as a new religion.
Yet, Robert Goldenberg asserts that it is increasingly accepted among scholars that at the end of the 1st century CE there were not yet two separate religions called "Judaism" and "Christianity". According to Philip Jenkins, as late as the end of the second century, Christianity and Judaism had a lot in common, and Christian denominations were still strongly divided on the meaning and interpretation of their own faith.