Haven’t done this in a while.
I just finished John Dominic Crossan’s The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. As I said earlier, I grew up, was baptized in and was very active in a church that purported to restore first-century Christianity, so I wanted to see from a scholarly standpoint how close we got.
Crossan, a former monk, uses both extant and hypothetical sources (the Q Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas and earliest possible versions of the four canonic Gospels) as well as studies of the dichotomy between rural and urban life in Levantine cultures and studies of ancient peasantry to examine how multiple Christianities actually developed in the earliest years, when the texts were presented in an oral tradition instead of written form. By synthesizing all this data, Crossan presents an early Christianity that contains multiple levels of eschatology (not just an end-of-the-world judgment, but upending of the social order as well) and reframes the resurrection as a political act as much as anything else. It’s fascinating.
Even if Crossan misses the mark on a few things (and the first 300 pages or so are a slog; I almost gave up a few times, and the only time I’ve ever actually given up on a book is Atlas Shrugged, a decision which I do not regret), he does stimulate quite a lot of thought, and I think he’s more accurate than most. So with regard to my own background, I will say this:
I don’t think we restored first-century Christianity. I think we restored first-century Christianity as it would have developed if you built a time machine and replaced first-century Christians with early 19th-century Americans. Does it make it any less valid? I don’t particularly think so; all religious traditions are misremembered and changed over time. (Our atheist friends would argue that it’s no less valid because nothing religious is valid. Within that worldview, that’s a true statement.) But a little honesty would go a long way.
So the sermon yesterday looked at the story of Abraham and Isaac. Preacherman offered a viewpoint that I found interesting – the big deal about this (and by extension, the Crucifixion) was not that a sacrifice was made, but rather that the perception of the Divine changed via those events. To paraphrase – when God first contacted Abraham, Abraham perceived him as “Elohim,” which was a basic Mesopotamian “sky god” construct. In other words, man defined God. At the moment of Isaac’s near-sacrifice, though, God is then identified – by himself – as “Yahweh” (Jehovah), or “I am that I am.” In other words, God defined Himself.
Roll that around in your brain for a second.
This is how I interpret this: The story of Abraham and Isaac is the first time in theological history that God defines Himself rather than building on human conceptions of what a God should be. What we have here is what writing types would call “plot development.” In order for the events of the next 65 books to take place, the protagonist has to take on a larger role – one beyond the purview of some regional deity. Here, God gets His capitalization. It is a transforming moment.
Now, let us look at the parallel to Abraham and Isaac – the Crucifixion. The traditional view is that Christ was the sacrifice provided to close the story of Abraham and provide the necessary bloodshed. The spilling of Christ’s blood was a violent act, the culmination of several violent acts and sacrifices. Because of this act, we need no longer commit violence for appeasement of an angry God. Let’s go a little further now – neither Isaac nor Christ were going to fight their sacrifice (Isaac because he was unable, Christ because He was unwilling), even though both were innocent. We move away from sacrifice of innocents at this point and into a new age of personal responsibility. In some ways, this actually weakens the power that God assumed in the transformation from Elohim to Yahweh…but that’s a discussion for another time.
I draw two conclusions: (1) Violence is never the answer where issues of soteriology are concerned, and (2) the most amazing thing about the story of Christ is how transforming it is with regard to our relationship with the Divine and those around us. Whether you believe or don’t (and don’t kid yourself, no one who thinks hasn’t had moments of extreme doubt), the idea that we need not sacrifice each other to make a better world is powerful.