Christianity’s Critics: The Romans Meet Jesus (Part Two)

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles Valentin de Boulogne CCO

Jesus and Paul were false prophets

Radical apocalypticism was the foundation of the earliest form of Christian-ity. Jesus imagined the kingdom to be coming soon—very soon—in the very generation that heard his preaching.

The High Priest was standing in their midst and he asked Jesus, “Have you nothing to say in response? What are these men testifying against you?”
But he kept silent and made no reply.
Again the High Priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?”
Jesus said to him, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven!”(1)

The High Priest himself will witness the coming of the Son of Man and Jesus’ own generation—“Truly I tell you, by no means will this generation disappear until all these things happen”(2)—“this generation,” will not pass away until “all these things” happen. “These two predictions of Jesus [Mark 9:1 and 13:28-31] are related in that they do not simply announce the somewhat vague imminence of the kingdom of God, but they announce its arrival prior to the end of the generation to whom Jesus was speaking…the community which produced the Gospel of Mark [was] an apocalyptic millenarian community living in the imminent expectation of the end of the age.”(3)

The disciples will not even complete their circuit of the towns of Palestine before the coming of the Son of Man: “But when they run you out of one town, flee to another, for truly I tell you, by no means will you finish going through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man arrives!”(4) The end is fast approaching: “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will by no means taste death until they see the kingdom of God already arrived in power.”(5)

If Jesus really believed that the religious and political order was soon to end, we would expect to hear that belief reflected in his preaching and we do. The disciples are not to imagine that Jesus has come to bring peace—family members will turn on one another, becoming bitter enemies (6)

and those who expect to follow Jesus into the kingdom must not even stop to say farewell to those left behind.(7) A man must not linger to gather possessions, nor stop even to pick up his cloak.(8) The urgency of the situation abrogates even the most basic filial responsibilities:

   Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first allow me to go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me and let the dead bury their dead.”(9)

For those hoping to inherit the kingdom the costs will be steep. The disciple must hate his own father, mother, brothers and sisters, wife and children.(10) Moreover, he must sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor.(11) So complete is the renunciation of the present age that those who can must become eunuchs—“there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs (oitinej eunoucisqhsan) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”(12)

However, one set of familiar texts has repeatedly failed to draw the detailed attention of the Jesus questers: the beatitudes for childless and barren women (Lk 23:29; Gos[pel of] Thom[as] 79b) and the warnings to pregnant women and mothers (Mk 13:17-19; Lk 23:28, 30-31)…when the beatitudes and woes to women are understood in the context of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology, they function together as an injunction against procreation…[Jesus’] message of renouncing reproduction in light of imminent tribulation stands firmly in the tradition of an ancient prophetic predecessor (Jer. 16:1-9)…Jesus’ words of renunciation are congruent with his negative response to an unnamed woman who blesses ‘the womb that bore’ him and ‘the breasts that nursed’ him (Lk 11:27-28; Gos. Thom. 79a)…His retort, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’ makes a good deal of sense if, as we have seen, part of his message was to warn women against bearing children.(13)

Nothing must distract the disciple from the nearness of the End, neither self-regard—“unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”(14) —nor standing in the community—“I swear to you that the tax men and the whores are going ahead of you into the kingdom of God!”(15) As Fredriksen points out, anger becomes equivalent to murder(16) in Jesus’ ethics, and lust to adultery,(17) and notes that such “intensification of ethical norms…is a phenomenon typical within communities commit-ted to the belief that time is rapidly drawing to a close.” Passivity in the face of evil(18) and a refusal to judge(19) “would simply lead to the exploitation of those abiding by such rules by those who did not. This impracticality in turn allows us to glimpse the intensity of expectation that motivated Jesus’ mission and the community that formed around him: the Kingdom was at hand.”(20)

“Thus the complexities of moral judgments that typify a complex society are resolved into a series of binary opposites: poor-rich, good-evil, pious-hypocrite, elect-damned. And a final reckoning is proclaimed for the near future.”(21) Aune remarks on the “eschatological polarity” of Jesus’ ethical teaching and concludes, “The teachings of Jesus, therefore, show a strong tendency to use eschatological expectation as the basis for a hortatory or parenetic purpose.”(22)

Among the first generation, expectations of Jesus’ quick return ran so high that those with property sold off what they had and Jesus’ followers lived communally.(23) Writing to the newly converted, Paul advised slaves to remain slaves and the virgins and unmarried to remain single. Married men were to act as if they had no wife, for “the time allotted has become short.”(24) It is likely that contempt for Christianity among the common people arose in part from believers divorcing their mates or denying them conjugal relations. The asceticism provoked by the impending End resulted in “a household of brothers and sisters rather than husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.”(25) According to the historian Eusebius, Origen, the church father of the 2nd century went so far as to castrate himself as a teenager, the action of an “immature mind” (frenojatelouj), yet praised as an act “of faith and self-control” (pistewjkai swfrosunhj).(26) Justin Martyr applauded a young Alexandrian convert who petitioned the Roman governor to give a surgeon permission to castrate him. (27) Although permission was refused, “Justin’s apologetic use and evident approval of the effort itself are striking.”(28)

Like many apocalyptic movements since, early Christianity exemplified sexual psychopathology and extremism. Origen took Matthew 19:12 literally, as have other believers such as the Russian Skoptsy, a millenarian sect that practiced self-mutilation and believed the Messiah would return once their membership reached 144,000.(29) The 4th century heresy hunter Epiphanius described a Christian sect, the Valesians, and said of them, “all but a few are eunuchs.”(30) Origen’s theology of castration epitomizes self-loathing; he urged fellow Christians in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, “Therefore, hate your souls because of eternal life,(31) persuaded that the hatred Jesus teaches is noble and useful.”(32)

Little wonder that the Stoic Marcus Aurelius despised the Christians, calling their preaching “the claims of the miracle-mongers and sorcerers (twn terateuomenwn kai gohtwn) about incantations and casting out devils (daimonwn apopomphj),” and characterized their fascination with martyrdom as originating not in personal acts of judgment but from “dissent unsupported by evidence” (kata yilhn parataxin),(33) “from mere obstinacy based on irrational ideas.”(34) If Marcus despised the Christians, the Christians despised him right back; his magnificent bronze equestrian statue “remained intact only because it was mistakenly believed to be of Constantine.”(35)

Of course Jesus did not return in the lifetime of the High Priest or in the lifetime of those of “this generation.” As believers began to die awaiting the Coming of the Son of Man, anxiety reached a peak. Paul’s letter to the house church in Thessalonica, widely regarded as the oldest surviving Christian document, likely written as early as 52 C.E., offered the following false assurance to the flock:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We be-lieve that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.(36)

Paul obviously believed that some would survive until the return of the Lord—“we who are still alive and are left”—and that at least some of the believers who read his letter would be physically, corporeally, alive when Jesus returned—“may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again.”(37) “…the Second Coming of Jesus will occur in the immediate future…the hope that the vast majority of Christians would be living witnesses to Christ’s return from heaven points to the likelihood of composition in the first decade of the Chris-tian movement.”(38) But Paul’s ecstatic house churches contained the seeds of their own destruction: “Paul had opened a Pandora’s box among the Jews and God-fearers wherever he established Christian communities. His first letter to the Corinthians indicates that the proclamation of free-dom from the Law through the love of Christ and the approaching end led to wild revivalist prophesying in which men and women partici-pated, to claims of possession of ‘knowledge’ (that is, esoteric knowledge of the beyond)…”(39) As time would tell, defeated expectations of the End, as well as unrestrained individualism, would eventually be suppressed by the rise of the Church and so began the centuries-long drama of The Church versus the churches, the magisterium versus the mob.