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The Dying Church in the First Century

The Short Story

About 2022 years ago a man called Jesus was roaming the countryside of Galilee in Palestine. That’s the first we know about him. Before that, nothing. He was special, not that he was necessarily the only one ever with that mystique, but he was able to instil in some a new awareness about what it meant to be a human being. And according to what they say, the essence of being human is love. Not greed and power, not accumulation of wealth, not oppression of others who are different in color or sex or occupation, but love and respect and caring. That was the simple message about what was involved in being true to your own self.

Some of those who were impacted by Jesus stayed with him and formed an extended family, most likely totaling about 25 women and men. Their memories are found in books we call Mark, Matthew and Luke. Still others were changed by Jesus but chose to move on. Their memories of Jesus are found in two writings called Thomas and Q.

Alongside their leader, all of these disciples were a challenge to the rulers of society, both religious and secular, opposing, as they did, the systems of oppression and patronage that formed the basis for the social order. As a result, the rich and powerful crucified Jesus, hoping that that would put an end to a seditious way of thinking and acting that focused on equality of all people. But they were wrong. The movement continued, and grew. It grew because the disciples had come to know what it meant to be a fully human and loving person. There was no going back to the old way, because they now were aware in their own lives that love was the essence of all that is, a fact that crucifixion could not destroy. And they were excited to share with others what they were now experiencing. There really was no going back.

The intent of the rich and powerful to destroy the movement not only continued but intensified, and it did so by transforming and distorting the thinking of the new community. What was originally a family of friends became an institution ruled by priests. An open meal shared by rich and poor alike became a sacramental meal offered to individuals. The post crucifixion life of Jesus, originally a sign both that love universally conquers evil, and a sign of the continuing fight against oppression, became an event that happened but once to a single man, epitomized by an empty tomb. A life of caring and sharing in the here and now became focused on a future heaven.

The change was social as well as theological. As the first century moved along, a changed thinking led to changes in the social system. Reading from later writings, now included in the Bible, such as First Timothy, Titus, First Peter, and verses in Colossians and Ephesians, it becomes apparent that the message of Jesus had been distorted beyond recognition. From a variety of books written at a variety of locations, the church at the end of the first century had some guidelines totally opposite the teaching of Jesus. Wives, be submissive to your husbands. Slaves, be submissive to your masters. Church, obey the priests. Everybody, be submissive to the authorities. Fear God and obey the emperor. The rich and powerful had won the day. The seeds of destruction had been sown.

Review & Commentary