National Lutheran News

Bible scholars suggested reasons why Jesus changed the world

“The Early Christian Experience” examined during Oak Grove series

What did the first Christian believers discover about Jesus that made them
rethink their existence, and when did they actually discover it? Those
questions were among many raised by a trio of Scripture scholars who spoke
in the Twin Cities during February. A renowned scholar from Emory
University, Atlanta, Georgia, was joined by a pair of theologians from Luther
Seminary for the 2008 “Oak Grove February Forum” in Bloomington,
Minnesota. The presentations were shared on three successive Sundays
between February 10 and 24.

In a February 10 presentation, Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, a Scripture scholar
at Emory, said, “The best clues about Christianity’s beginnings don’t come
from the four New Testament Gospels. We need to look earlier, to Paul’s
letters.” Jesus’ teaching didn’t launch the new faith, he said, but rather the
resurrection. But resurrection (which the first believers were more inclined to
describe as Jesus’ “exaltation”) didn’t mean what some moderns may think. It
was not the resuscitation of a dead body, nor the mere sustaining of a
significant life in people’s memories.

Instead, Johnson said, Jesus’ resurrection was seen to be an experience that
continues through time, one that changes our existence. It wasn’t an
historical event, but something that changed reality’s structure and,
according to Paul, brought in a new creation. “Jesus is more powerfully alive
now than he was in his earthly life,” Johnson said, describing the mind-set of
the first believers.

Something powerful was going on in these early faith communities, Johnson
maintained. He said signs of the new reality included visions (“The New
Testament is full of them”); unusual language (glossolalia, or what moderns
call “speaking in tongues”); and healings (which was significant, since citizens
of the Empire thought these could only happen in a healing center like
Epidauros or Pergammon).

Johnson said, “Romans chapter 8 (where Paul talks about life in the Spirit)
should be required Christian reading every second or third day. And 2
Corinthians chapter 3 (where the Apostle asserts that where the Spirit is,
there is freedom) should be daily reading.”

Speaking on February 17, Dr. Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament at
Luther Seminary, said Jesus changed the way believers read the Old
Testament. The first believers’ mantra concerning Jesus was, “He’s alive!” But,
once they’d said that, they found they needed to start backing up and giving
their conviction some context.

“What began to happen was that the Christian message interpreted the
Hebrew Scriptures (what moderns call the ‘Old Testament’). The faithful
began to read the meaning of the Old Testament through Easter.”
Said Jacobson, “The first church was so overpowered by the resurrection,
everything they read in the Old Testament reminded them of Jesus.

Sometimes their interpretations sound a little crazy to us, especially when we
remember what the Old Testament writer may originally have meant. But this
didn’t trouble the early Christian Church. Believers were so in love with Jesus,
everything they read in the Old Testament reminded them of him.”

Jacobson illustrated the early believers’ approach to Old Testament texts by
focusing on three bodies of writing: “Royal Psalms” (which originally
celebrated God’s endorsement of a Hebrew king, but which sounded to
Christians like a description of Christ the King); the Prophets (most
dramatically, Isaiah 53, which discusses a ‘suffering servant,’ and which
Christians saw to be a reference to Christ); and the Torah, also known as “The
Law of Moses.” (Israel saw itself as a community set aside by God; Christians
thought of themselves in a similar way.)

According to Jacobson, “Scholars believe most early Christians were
opponents of Paul. They wanted conditions on membership. Paul rejected
every sort of condition.” Paul said believers should simply do what Abraham
did, trust God in faith and forget about credentials of any kind. After they
were kicked out of the synagogues, early Christians were plagued with the
question, “If we aren’t Jews, then who are we?” Paul’s answer was an Old
Testament one: “We are true descendants of Abraham. He took everything by
faith.” Paul almost turned Abraham into a proto-Christian.

Completing the cycle of presentations, Dr. Matthew Skinner, Professor of New
Testament at Luther Seminary, spoke on February 24. He asked his audience,
“If (since) Jesus is Lord, then who are we?” Early Christians, he said, were
struggling with the task of “self-definition” and didn’t find this to be an easy
task.

Skinner said there were three points of contact which shaped the answers
early believers found. The first was social alienation. As soon as persecution
began to break out, Christians discovered the importance of behaving as a
support community. “They needed to support one another, since persecution
could result in loss of employment and family. The church became a new
family.”

Second, the faithful found that old social distinctions no longer applied. They
remembered how Jesus ate with sinners. Said Skinner, “Table fellowship was
a big issue for Paul in his letters.” It was a radical idea to welcome people
from different social classes to eat at the same table, but early Christianity
did this.”

Third, there was a gradual impulse toward achieving social respectability.
Paul was ready to welcome women into leadership roles in the earliest
church. He famously wrote a greeting to a woman named Junia, whom he
called a respected church leader. Later generations found it awkward, even
troublesome, to allow women to serve in such roles (scholars have debated
for centuries how and why the title “Junia,” a female name, was apparently
changed in later manuscripts, to “Junias,” a masculine reference).

By the time the letter we call 1 Timothy is written, Skinner said, “the church
seems to be adapting to culture for comfort sake. Women are told to back off.
Maybe the leaders were beginning to think that making waves was not a good
thing.”

Said Skinner, “The idea that Gentiles get embraced unconditionally is a huge
paradigm shift. This was Paul’s approach, and he had to take on some heavy
hitters advocating this opposite view. One would have expected the other
side to win, and yet Paul’s view prevailed.”

The lecture series, an annual event offered each February, is sponsored by
Oak Grove Presbyterian Church.