The Human Journey
Post Axial Jerusalem

Post-Axial Thought


Pages 12

Icon of Jesus Christ
Icon of Jesus Christ the Savior.
6th-century icon from Saint
Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.

Jesus survived after his death through his followers, who initially were centered in Jerusalem and headed by his brother James. They remained part of mainstream Jewry, and would have had no thought of starting a new religion. There can be no doubt that his ignominious, tragic and untimely death left those who loved him and wanted to learn from him totally devastated. Initially his followers would have gathered to recall and repeat his words as they remembered them and to emulate his behavior as best they could. Some scholars suggest that the shock of his death left his followers so devastated that they believed that they had misunderstood the role of their Messiah. During his lifetime Jesus followed the Jewish messianic tradition and eschatology, restoring a just kingdom to the Jews on earth.

Now they believed it was the Kingdom of God that he would herald. Expecting him to return again in triumph at any minute, bringing with him the end of the world, they lived in the strong sense of his presence – in the form of the Holy Spirit. “ … ritual outside the established Jewish custom was minimal: consisting of baptism and the Eucharist meal celebrated in people‚Äôs homes. The early Church followers appear also to have gathered in small groups, probably each around a particular apostle, where they would repeat and discuss such sayings and teachings of Jesus as they could remember. This early practice reflects an inner spiritual tradition still current in parts of the East, where, in addition to observing the external religious law, certain students also receive wisdom handed down through a chain of masters.” (The Marketing of Christianity: The Evolution of Early Christian Doctrine, Institute for Cultural Research, London, 2000).

Then further tragedy occurred. About forty years after the death of Jesus, several Jewish Zealots led a rebellion against the power of Rome. This “Great Revolt” (66 - 73) was a disaster; it resulted in the destruction of the Jewish Temple and of Jerusalem itself, which was burned to the ground. The historian Josephus estimated that one million one hundred thousand Jews perished in the siege of Jerusalem alone. Galilee, where Jesus taught, was the home of the Jewish resistance and so suffered badly – the Romans killed and pillaged without mercy. According to Josephus: “One could see the whole lake red with blood and covered with corpses, for not a man escaped.” (Wars III. iv, I. x. 9.). The might of Rome celebrated this victory with the building of the Arch of Titus in Rome, and, to further emphasize Pax Romana the Coliseum in Rome was built from the booty of the Jewish Temple. To the Jews this was catastrophic. It was physical and concrete evidence that Rome’s gods were more powerful than Yahweh. The followers of Jesus were still lamenting their teacher’s demise at the hands of the Romans, and now had to deal with the Temple and Israel’s destruction again by Roman hands. Some scholars suggest that it was as a response to both Jesus’ death and these tragic and horrific events that the idea of their teacher’s resurrection came about.

Photo of stones from the Western Wall of the Temple Mount
Photo of stones from the Western Wall of the Temple
Mount (Jerusalem) thrown onto the street by
Roman soldiers 70 CE

The idea of resurrection was not new in Judaism, however, and may well have been absorbed originally from the Zoroastrians. Daniel who was advisor to the Persian Emperor Darius the Great, was the first Jewish prophet to refer to it, and it was believed in by Hillel and his followers. Hence the idea was familiar to the early followers of Jesus, who might well have turned to it as consolation: God would raise his faithful servant Jesus from the dead, as he restored to life others who had honored him in their lives.

After the catastrophe of the Great Revolt, Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed. The Church of Jerusalem all but disappeared and no written records survived of the sayings and doings of Jesus. From this time on his teaching would unfortunately be remembered only in fragments and would unavoidably be subject to interpretation by people with different biases: “depriving the Church … of authoritative guidance in matters of faith, and opening the door for the increasing intrusion of alien beliefs.” (Dr. Hugh Schonfield).

Perhaps in part due to the lack of authentic documentation on Jesus’ life and teaching, within a decade or two after his death believers in the Messiah as the crucified Jesus existed in Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and as far west as Rome. Some continued to follow Jewish Orthodoxy and some were Gentiles. By the year 65 CE believers in Jesus lived in all the major cities of the eastern Roman Empire. Gradually separating themselves from the local Jewish community, they formed separate communities, meeting in households throughout the many cities. They were dubbed Christians from the Greek wordCristos, a Greek translation of the Hebrew title meaning messiah – the anointed one. From the time of Emperor Nero, they were viewed as a distinct group by outsiders. Looking for scapegoats upon whom to blame the fire in Rome in 64 CE, Nero focused his attention on the Christians.

Graffiti Portrait of Nero
Ancient graffiti portrait of Nero found
at the Domus Tiberiana

Separation from Judaism took place over a long period of time and varied from place to place. In Antioch and Constantinople, for example, Christians were participating within the Jewish community and attending Jewish festivals as late as the 4th and 5th centuries. At the other end of the spectrum, in the communities founded by Saul of Tarsus, who would become known as Paul the Apostle, the social separation had already taken place by the middle of the first century.

What we know of Jesus the majority of us learned directly or indirectly from the New Testament, and from the rituals that celebrate or commemorate events described in it. In almost all Christian traditions today, the New Testament consists of 27 books forming an anthology written by a number of authors. Like the Septuagint, the New Testament was written in popular Greek spoken at the time in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.