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Earliest Believers

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Before they were called Christians, before Paul had become a believer, before there were gentiles among them, there was a community of the earliest followers of Jesus. As a movement within Judaism, they might have seemed indistinguishable from other Jewish sects. They retained much of the Jewish heritage; in particular, the Jewish Bible (what Christians eventually called the Old Testament), traditions of worship from synagogue and Temple, and adherence to Jewish ritual practices and morality. Yet they lived in considerable tension with Judaism, and finally broke with Judaism, for they were in fact different from other Jewish sects (click on Judaism in Palestine).

They were originally disciples of Jesus before his death. Their bond of loyalty to him had been renewed by resurrection appearances which had come to them, individually and collectively.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8  3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

This resurrection report probably came to Paul orally in relatively fixed traditional form by the 30’s. In this post-Easter period (and, some argue, in the pre-Easter period, as well), the followers of Jesus were united in the belief that he was the Messiah or Christ. However, their belief differed from prevailing Jewish messianic expectations in that, from a very early time, they also held that Jesus had died for their sins according to scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3). In addition, they lived in intense expectation of the end of the age when he would return in glory as the Son of man and bring to consummation the kingdom of God.

The early Christian message was essentially a proclamation of the imminent coming of this one who had died and risen again; see 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10; Romans 1:3-4. Those who received the Word entered the Christian community through baptism. Immersion in water signified cleansing from sin, and a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that the believer died to his old life of sin and rose again to a new life of righteousness (Romans 6:3-5).

The community of believers was bound together by common meals which were usually held on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, or Sunday (Revelation 1:10; compare 1 Corinthians 16:2; Acts 20:7). These meals were a renewal of the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, in which his death was interpreted sacrificially through the broken break and the shared cup of wine (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

Some indirect but important evidence suggests that the earliest cluster of Christians was in Galilee; there, according to our earliest gospel, Jesus was to appear to his disciples (Mark 14:28; 16:7), and there, in all probability, he also appeared to James (the brother of the Lord), to the five hundred brothers and sisters, and perhaps to others mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7. For reasons not known to us, Jerusalem became the principal center of Christianity for the next several decades. Perhaps the return of Christ in glory was expected there, on the basis of a Christian interpretation of Malachi 3:1.

The Twelve were the acknowledged leaders of the community, and among them Peter (Cephas) was looked to as the authoritative spokesman. His name appears first in the earliest tradition of resurrection appearances (see above). There were other apostles besides the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:7), who likewise participated in the authority and mission of the Twelve. James (the brother of the Lord) emerged as an established leader of the church by the early 40’s (Galatians 1:19). In another ten years or so he was ranked with Peter and John as one of the “pillars” of the church (Galatians 2:9). By the time of his martyr-death in A.D. 62, he was undisputed head of the Jerusalem church, and, in a sense, of the whole church.

Though reliable details are lacking, the church in Jerusalem and Judea did suffer persecution from the Jewish authorities (see 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). As a consequence, members of the Christian community were scattered far and wide. About A.D. 40, within a decade of its beginning, the church was established in important metropolitan centers like Antioch and Damascus in Syria, and possibly as far as Rome in the west. The beginnings of Christianity in Alexandria of Egypt are obscure, but it is reasonable to suppose that the church was established there by A.D. 100, and possibly half a century earlier.

Though well established now outside of Palestine, the church was still predominantly Jewish Christian. Most of its converts were being made from the synagogues. The Christian community still observed Jewish laws governing the Sabbath, food and circumcision. Only by degrees did the Christian mission extend to the gentile (non-Jewish) population, and the question was still unresolved on what terms gentiles were to be received into the Christian community.

 

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