Without this, Christianity ceases to be Christian

Some religions are impossible to imagine apart from their founders. Can anyone picture Islam without Muhammed, or the Latter Day Saints without Joseph Smith, or Scientology without L. Ron Hubbard?

In other religions the human founder is historically important but not indispensable. Taoism, Confucianism and even Judaism fit this description. In still other religions, there is no founder, or the founder is unknown. Hinduism, with its million gods, comes readily to mind.

Christianity clearly falls into the first category and is, in this sense, like Islam. One cannot conceive of a Christianity without a Christ. But Christianity is also different in this: a Muslim believes that the world and the principles by which it operates would have remained generally the same whether Muhammed ever taught about them or not. But a Christian believes that Jesus changed the world and the very principles by which it operates.

Like every spiritual leader, Jesus taught about God, about how the world operates and about how people can thrive in it. In that regard, he was like other great teachers, like the Buddha or the gurus of Sikhism. Jesus taught these things and taught them brilliantly.

But unlike Buddhism or Sikhism – or for that matter, Judaism or Taoism or many other religious constructs – Christianity stands or falls with its founder. If historians could prove that Gautama never existed, Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths” and “Eightfold Path” would continue on. But if historians could prove that Jesus never existed, Christianity would immediately collapse. Buddhists believe that the Gautama Buddha saw and taught about the eternal reality behind the visible world. Christians believe that Jesus transformed that reality.

To argue that Christian denominations and churches would continue on doing good works and holding religious services even without a real Jesus, is to make the accusation that denominations and churches are not really Christian. Christianity is not a state of mind (though it influences one’s state of mind). It is not a belief system (though it requires belief). Christianity is a relationship to the Christ: a relationship of the led to the leader, of the saved to the savior. Apart from this shared relationship, Christianity ceases to be Christian.

So what makes Jesus so different? Where does one start? His first hearers repeatedly noted the difference between Jesus and other religious teachers. They said that he taught like someone with inside information; like someone with authority.

As is true with many charismatic religious leaders, miracles were attributed to Jesus. But Jesus’s miracles were revelatory. They were “signs,” as the Apostle John insists on calling them. They pointed to God and related important information about him.

Jesus didn’t merely point people to God; he took them to God. This is how he put it: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This claim has been tried and attested by Jesus’s followers since the beginning. St. Peter writes that Christ died to “bring you to God” and St. Paul says that people have access to God through him.

Christianity is more than a way to live; it is a life. The biblical writers, the Church Fathers, and leaders and saints through the ages have claimed that through Jesus, God gives people a kind of life they could not otherwise experience. This life – referred to as “the life” and “eternal life” – is made available through the extraordinary gift of “the Spirit of life.”

People have found Jesus to be both down to earth (common folks have always loved him) and out of this world (he himself said, “I have come down from heaven”). His followers have labored to explain this in long and complicated, sometimes helpful and sometimes unhelpful, theological expositions, but no one can satisfactorily explain Jesus. They can, however, encounter him. And that, perhaps more than anything, is what sets him apart.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/31/2015

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4 Responses to Without this, Christianity ceases to be Christian

  1. J. Mitchell says:

    Your article was very interesting. First, I see that you believe that Moses may have begun Judaism. Actually when God spoke to Abraham he did not promise to make out of him a great religion. He said he would make him a great nation. The Covenant was very typical to the ancient covenants of many nations of the time but in this case the ruler was not a man but the creator of the universe who had chosen the children of Israel to be that great nation. As in all of humanity it did not happen over night. Your children do not become adults when they learn to walk and talk.

    Jesus was a Jew. He followed the covenant and as any Jew of the time in which he lived, as with the Maccabees before him and Bar Kochba after and many in between that were intent on saving the Nation of Israel, he would have been dedicated to the Torah written by Moses at the direction of God.

    I find that too many people claiming to know God have never ever really read the Torah or the Tanakh and studied it. They are too interested in the Roman version of Jesus. If Jesus had been the savior of the world and the founder of Christianity, IF, he would then have been an apostate Jew, going against all that the Covenant involved. Many people want to use the Jeremiah passage about the new covenant as a basis of Christianity, but if read closely there is no mention of Gentiles. It is made with the house of Judah and Israel not a gentile population.

    If you look closely, Christianity has borrowed, adapted and distorted many Jewish traditions. Those traditions (the three appointed times that God wanted the nation to gather) were at the bidding of God. Christian “holidays” are nowhere to be found as a command of God to observe them. As the 4th of July is important to us as Americans, Hanukkah and Purim are national holidays important to the Israelite people. God forbid that Jesus would have instituted the “Lord’s supper” to replace the Passover!!!!!!!! Would that have not been a slap in the face of the God whom he held as the ONE God with no others before Him? Since Jesus and Jason are Greek “equivalents” of Joshua (a good Jewish name) it blurs the real meaning of what this man might have wished to accomplish in this world. He was from an area that supported the Sicarii. He said to buy a sword.

    The Greek and Roman gods came and went from “heaven” and “hell” Portraying Jesus as able to do those things would put him on a level with the Roman and Greek gods.

    The New Testament is a compiled document ABOUT Jesus written in the 60’s CE. No one really knows who wrote them since no one claims authorship.

    So, Christianity without a Christ would not fly. You are correct. Christ meaning anointed – prophets, priests, kings of Israel. Again, looking at the Tanakh which Jesus, if a true Jew, would have followed, does not leave room for the depiction of the Jesus in the NT. It strays from the word given by God to his chosen ones. Others can take and askew those words if they wish, but it would be an affront to God himself.

    Thank you for letting me share my thoughts.

    • salooper57 says:

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to respond. I appreciate the seriousness with which you take the subject, and though we will disagree on a number of things (and agree on a number of others!), I am grateful for the dialog.

      I’m not sure why you write that I believe Moses began Judaism, but I do agree that God promised to make Abraham a great nation (not religion), and I like your way of putting it. The Covenant at Sinai was like many ancient suzerainty treaties, though the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15) was not.
      I am glad that you read the Torah and Tanakh. I actually think it is impossible understand the New Testament writers (and Christianity in general) apart from them. The Evangelists (with the exception of Luke) were Jews who knew and loved the Old Testament. St. Matthew quotes or alludes to the Old Testament over 60 times. But it is the rabbi Saul (later Paul), with his broad and deep knowledge of Torah and Tanakh that played such an important role in the Christian understanding of Jesus.

      Rabbi Saul originally fought the Yeshua-Messiah group, and thought of Jesus (or at least his followers) as apostate. It was the revelation on the Damascus Road that changed his mind, and particularly his understanding of the Resurrection. Any serious reading of Paul displays an absolute dependence on Torah and Tanakh. One of his most radical insights was that God wanted to include Gentiles within the covenant people of God. That of course was enormously controversial in Paul’s time (as now), but it is foundational to a biblical understanding of Christianity.

      And by the way, I would argue that Jesus never intended to start a new religion. Neither did Paul. Paul remained a Jew his entire life, observed the Law, and loved and boasted about his heritage. (Romans 9, Philippians 3, etc.).

      A helpful scholarly exposition of the relationship between Jesus and Old Testament (particularly 2nd Temple period) Judaism can be found in N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. Also, by the same author is the shorter word, “Simply Jesus.”
      I do not think the New Testament writers every thought themselves outside the traditions of Old Testament or its trajectory. They were initially as surprised as anyone that the Messiah should be an embodiment of Isaiah’s suffering servant, and they, like everyone else, struggled with the idea that Gentiles should find a place among the God’s people.
      -Shayne

      • J. Mitchell says:

        Hi, thank you for letting me re-respond. One of the basic things that comes to mind is that of Jesus acknowledging that he was, in fact, deity. The question is how do we know that he did? The other is did he, in fact, actually establish a religion called Christianity? You said that Paul never intended to start a new religion. If neither Paul, nor the disciples, nor Jesus intended to start a new religion then the question stands. Who did begin Christianity?

        J. Mitchell

  2. salooper57 says:

    John,
    Good question – or questions. The first is about whether Jesus actually ever acknowledged his deity. Then there is the question of who started Christianity. And there is a third, unspoken but highly relevant, question that is woven in and out of the other two: did Jesus think himself the Messiah?

    The first question is both easy to answer and difficult to explain, because we are likely to read into what Jesus said about himself two millennia of theological pondering, framed (for the most part) in Western terminology that Jesus did not use but that theologians have relied on to talk about Jesus’s self-understanding.

    What Jesus said about himself is as follows: He identified himself as the one coming on the clouds from Daniel 7, whose dominion is everlasting and who is worshiped by all peoples.
    Likewise, he claimed to be the one at the right hand of God, a reference to the influential Psalm 110.
    He claimed to be the son of God, who knows the Father and has come from the Father.
    He claimed to be one with the God.
    He claimed to be humanity’s judge.
    He says that whoever has seen him has seen the Father.
    He claimed to be somehow present in Abraham’s time, and did so with repeated self-reference as “I AM” (“…before Abraham was I AM”).

    The Gospel writers (Mark in particular) see the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of the oft-promised return of YHWH to Zion.

    In line with this, John describes Jesus as “tabernacling” among us, a reference to God’s presence with his people in the wilderness. (These last two ideas represent an important stream in second temple Judaism, which expected YHWH to return to Zion and be present among them.)

    Finally, Jesus saw himself (this is particularly clear in Matthew’s Gospel, but it also appears elsewhere) as Torah- giver.

    These all have Messianic significance, but there are many other indications that Jesus thought of himself as Messiah – though not a military leader as many assumed (and how could one blame them, considering their circumstances and history?) that Messiah would be.

    Jesus clearly thought of himself in terms of Isaiah’s (suffering) servant. His miracles were often represented (and understood) as Messianic (both by followers and adversaries)..Also his actions at the temple were Messianic. When asked to give evidence of his authority to act as he did at the temple, Jesus said to his interlocutors, “Answer me a question, and I’ll tell you where my authority comes from. John’s baptism, where did it come from – God or men?” Why John’s baptism? Because it was at his baptism that Jesus was anointed as Messiah.

    First century Jews were living a long story. They were waiting for the disaster of the exile to finally end with the coming of YHWH to Zion. Jesus understood himself as the one who came representing and embodying YHWH’s return to Zion. Some Jewish people acknowledged this, Most did not.

    It was based on Jesus’s own understanding, that Paul began taking the Septuagint “kyrios” passages that reference YHWH and applied them to Jesus. Along with Paul, the early Christians (and later Christians) were trying to find language to describe Jesus. This language has led to the Trinitarian formulas we are all familiar with, and which i accept. But it is important to realize that these formulas represent theologians struggle to understand Jesus’s own claims and those made about him by his earliest followers in language that Jesus did not use.

    Now, who started Christianity? I think the answer – quite unexpectedly – is Judaism (particularly synagogue and Pharisaic Judaism in the Roman empire). I don’t believe that Paul ever intended to begin a “religion” at all. He was a Jew and enormously proud of it. His extraordinary insight was that Israel’s messiah was the King of the world and therefore was for Gentiles as well as Jews. He argued that Gentiles did not need to become Jewish (as proselytes by circumcision) to belong to God’s people. This insistence that Gentiles be included among the people of God led people who would not and could not accept un-proselyted Gentiles as God’s people to drive Paul and those who followed him out of the synagogue.The Messiah Jesus followers came to be known as Christians (actually, very early in their history), but that was not their term for themselves and they had no thought of starting a religion. When in the mid-first century, Christians were given a different status by the Roman government (at the urging of influential Jewish leaders, who argued that these Messiah-Jesus followers should not be considered Jewish), the rift deepened and hardened.

    There is much more that could be said, and others have said it far better than I can. I might suggest N.T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus.” Hope this is helpful. Appreciate your interest, questions, and thoughtful critique. – Shayne

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