What we today call orthodox Christianity was in essence invented by Paul. Paul was to Jesus as Dr. Watson was to Sherlock Holmes – he was the press agent, the salesman. If not for Paul, it is not hard to see that Jesus would be as little-known today as any of the other Messianic leaders in Palestine during the first century C.E. (A.D.)
But why did Jesus’ message survive (though not intact)? Certainly marketing played a large part; but there was also a core message to Pauline Christianity which found ready acceptance during the first few centuries C.E. This message, which was a combination of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Neo-Platonism, was tied together with a thin thread of actual facts about Jesus, and turned into a religion which the world was ready for. The question of whether it was accepted because people were ready for it or if it was designed for a “target market” is interesting and is the subject of some debate.
To see why the world was ready for Christianity, it is convenient to think of a civilization as going through stages of life much as a person does. There is infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, old age, and death. Now apply these stages to what we call Western European civilization, which was born during the first centuries C.E., experienced childhood during what we call the “early Middle Ages,” entered puberty in the late Middle Ages, entered adulthood in the Renaissance, and matured over the last several centuries. Western Civilization is now entering its old age, when thoughts turn to mortality and subsequently to spirituality. We can see this in the current resurgence of interest in matters of religion. The number of people who describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” exemplifies how people are now searching for God, perhaps in all the wrong places.
But what does this have to do with the birth of Christianity? Christianity was born during the death of the Greco/Roman Civilization. It hit the right cords with the mood of the people at the time – it was the right answer at the right time.
It’s important to note here that just because I think Christianity survived because of proper timing, doesn’t mean that I am discounting it. This blog is called Christianity 2020! The problem is that when we say “give me that old time religion” we are talking about the adolescent version of Christianity, most of which is of no use to a mature civilization. What we need is a return to a Christianity of a mature culture – that of the first several centuries C.E. It was during this time that the concept of the incarnation – that is, the concept of Christ (Christos, Messiah), was developed in Judea. The term Christ – which means “anointed one” – is an adjective, like “carpenter”. “Jesus the Christ” means “Jesus the Anointed One”, much like the phrase “Jesus the Carpenter” would mean. Jesus was a Christ, not the only one, any more than he was the only carpenter. The incarnation of God in man was exemplified by Jesus, not defined by him. By deifying Jesus, we avoid having to live up to his example.
That Jesus did not believe himself to be the only “son of God” is beyond question. During the last supper “scene” in the Gospel of John, Jesus is praying to God and says (of his disciples) “Let them be one with you as I am” (John 17:21). In Matthew he is quoted as saying: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:38). And we all know that “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
Accepting the incarnation as an historical event is one thing; understanding its symbolic content is another; living it’s meaning is yet another.
IMAGE SOURCE: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St.Paul-PhilippeChampaigne.jpg ATTRIBUTION: Philippe de Champaigne [Public domain]