In parts 1 and 2 of this series I tried to show just how weird the early church was. And if you’ve met folks in the church today you might say that not much has changed!
But when I talk about “weird” I don’t mean it in the sense of “Uncle George who embarrasses everybody at family gatherings with lame jokes and bad hygiene,” but in the sense of “this is so utterly bizarre that it demands an explanation.” But not just any explanation will do.
The missing ingredient
Obviously something is awry here. Even if you don’t believe the message of the New Testament – if you don’t believe in miracles, or God, or whatever – the fact that this collection of ancient books survived in so many numbers, in so many languages, across two full millennia is unusual. That it survived in vastly larger numbers than any other literature from that time of history is astounding.
That any book would have been so vigorously copied by hand – across centuries, continents and languages no less – is stunning enough. But when one considers the subject of this widely distributed book the subject matter makes the copying of the book all the more bizarre. The facts surrounding Jesus’ life make him appear, by any typical standards, to land somewhere between “modestly interesting individual, I suppose” and “nobody worth paying attention to.” It has been observed,
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He worked in a carpentry shop until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. … He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never went to college. He never traveled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompanies greatness.
Based on those facts alone – an irrelevant leader and uninspiring followers – this religion should have died the same day as its founder died. End of story. Move along folks, nothing to see here.
The fact that it continued at all is weird, and requires an explanation. And it would take a pretty amazing explanation to take all those strikes against it and offset them. These are the key points I really want to drive home:
- The rapid expansion of the early Church demands an explanation, and
- Whatever the explanation is, it must be grand enough to overwhelmingly offset the many strikes the early Church had against them.
If I were somebody living at that time and I were aware of the full range of the embarrassing / mockery-worthy facts about Jesus and his followers (which, I might remind you from the last essay, the early church wasn’t exactly shy about) then I’d want to know why in the world I should adhere to this religion. Why would anybody in their right mind commit themselves to a religion like this, especially with those bozos at the helm? It’s got nothing going for it, the founder was inconsequential, and it’s run by a bunch of losers. Despite all this, Christianity exploded across the Roman Empire without the use of “conversion at the end of a sword” which has proven remarkably effective at other points of history.
Christianity exploded across the Roman Empire on its own merits. After all, that’s all the early church had to work with. Yet it would seem to be devoid of merits.
Shrug it off?
Why can’t we just dismiss this as “ah, well, strange things happen now and then”? It would be tempting to just shrug it off and get on with life. The simple reason this cannot be dismissed is because of the magnitude of just how counter-intuitive this really is. Let’s consider some what-if scenarios.
If the “early church” was represented by only one of Jesus’ eleven remaining disciples who kept pushing his message despite his death, we might be able to ignore him as a lunatic. Or maybe a drunkard. If the other ten returned to their livelihoods and communities – dismissing the one guy who just couldn’t let it go – that might make sense. One crazy guy isn’t hard to explain, and there isn’t anything particularly unusual about that. We even have crazy people today.
That all the remaining eleven disciples unanimously began actively proclaiming the message of this obviously failed Messiah is a little harder to explain, but, if we get creative, we could probably come up with some kind of almost believable explanation. But here’s the kicker; “insanity” isn’t on that list any more. You can explain away an individual person’s bizarre behavior as a result of mental instability, but explaining eleven people’s bizarre behavior as a result of insanity rapidly strains credibility. There might be something in the water, or we could chalk it up to group-think; various other explanations could be considered. But the explanation for such behaviour grows a little more difficult.
But it gets worse.
These bizarre eleven devotees to a failed Messiah gathered followers. People converted to their religion. Two converts in particular deserve some consideration; James and Paul. History records (and, as I understand it, even non-Christian scholars will agree) that neither of these two gentlemen wanted anything to do with Jesus and his band of nutcase believers. Paul was one of the most zealous persecutors of the early church. James was Jesus’ brother and he was more than a little embarrassed by his older sibling. Not only had these guys refused to “drink the Kool-aid” so to speak, they were actively opposed to the whole thing.
Yet they converted. After Jesus had been executed. Paul became one of the most effective evangelists for Christianity the church has ever seen. Both of them contributed to the writing of the New Testament. It’s one thing to keep the “faithful” wrapped around your little finger despite the dishonourable execution of the leader, but quite another thing to convert active opponents of the church after the dishonourable execution of the leader. Good luck with that!
But wait; we’re not done with the weirdness yet.
How much harder to accomplish all this when this fledgling movement is well aware that the same fate is likely to befall any of them as just befell their leader? If you’re not sure what a crucifixion is all about, Mel Gibson gave us a glimpse of that in Passion of the Christ. Imagine watching that knowing full well that if you sign up for this religion what happened to its leader could very well happen to you. When death is on the line, people will think twice about jumping on the bandwagon.
But hold one, we’re still not done with the weirdness.
Then they expanded beyond Jerusalem. A Jewish sect, dripping in Judaic imagery and references, expanded beyond Israel. The Christian message ended up being preached across most of the Roman Empire (much of Europe, Middle East and North Africa) to audiences who never would have met Jesus, nor heard about him until after his execution! Think about that for a minute. Here’s this ridiculously depressing tale about some “nobody” you’ve never met who lived in the armpit of the Roman Empire, never did anything worth getting excited about, was surrounded by idiots and was eventually executed by the authorities. He’s the center of our worship. Want to join our movement?
Oh, and by the way, the Roman soldiers right behind me aren’t exactly my body guards. I’m wanted, and if you join our movement you’ll be in for some persecution yourself.
When the “offer” from the church is so self-evidently ridiculous, yet so many people (not just one or two lunatics) became so fiercely dedicated to it that they gave their lives for it – including many years of their lives hand-copying the record of this you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me Jesus fellow – this situation demands an explanation. This is not the kind of thing that any open-minded, intellectually honest individual can shrug off.
When something is kind-of weird, is limited to a small group of people, and passes away almost as quickly as it came on to the scene we might be excused for not giving it a whole lot of thought. But when something is weird in the defies-any-categories-of-understanding-we-might-normally-have sense of weird, involved a large – and ever expanding – group of people, and lasts 2,000 years, then we are no longer justified in dismissing it or ignoring it.
The underdog is back in the game
There must be some aspect of the message of the church – something about the person of Jesus – that not only puts him back in the game, but gives him such a commanding lead in the game that he eventually overturns the Roman Empire and provides the philosophical frame of reference from which much of Western Civilization has been operating since then. In fact, even today a full 1/3 of the human race is devoted to this nobody who got nailed to a piece of wood 2,000 years ago.
Whatever that “missing ingredient” was for Christianity, it must have been remarkable enough to cause the earliest disciples (per their own written records!) to stop cowering in fear and start proclaiming their allegiance to their recently executed founder.
And that “missing ingredient” had to also be amazing enough that those to whom they were speaking would actually take them seriously! Stop and think about that for a minute. If you lived through all these events and were there to see the bloody execution in person, and then those early believers said, “join us” wouldn’t your first reaction be, “Are you out of your [insert your expletive of choice here] mind?!?!” You wouldn’t need reminding that the authorities that capped their founder were still eager to squash this new religion, and they just finished demonstrating the lengths to which they would go to accomplish their purposes.
That anybody would join this religion is incomprehensible!
So that missing ingredient had to be something that not only offset all the “you’ve got to be kidding me” elements of the religion itself, this missing ingredient had to be something so outlandish, so remarkable, so awe-inspiring that people far and wide – separated by time, geography and culture – would passionately pass this new religion on to those around them and, in some cases, face their own execution in the name of the founder.
That “nobody” founder.
The executed founder.
The guy who never led an army, ran for office, wrote a book or even held his ministry job for more than a few years.
That’s one heck of a “missing ingredient” and only the intellectually lazy could shrug the whole thing off and dismiss it without serious inquiry.