Christianity is Born in the Middle East
In the year 4 B.C., Rome was flourishing in the golden age of Caesar Augustus. Though not yet expanded to its fullest extent, the Empire included all the Mediterranean lands, including Palestine. Indeed, Palestine had been benefiting from the Pax Romana for more than half a century, and though the Jews had once or twice tried to throw off the Roman yoke, they had not succeeded.
A proud and active people, they chafed under the rule of Roman Governors, but they were not unaware of their limitations, and at this time, probably more than any other, they were looking forward to the appearance among them of a miraculous king, a Messiah, who would free them from the bondage of Rome.
Such a king had been a part of Jewish religious belief for several centuries, for the Romans had not been the first foreign power to subjugate them. They held that one of their great prophets, Isaiah, had foretold the coming of such a king.
Isaiah had lived in the eighth century B.C. at the very time that the city of Rome was being founded, and he had foretold the subjugation of the Jews by Babylon, which occurred some two hundred years after his death. From the time of the Babylonian captivity (586 B.C.) the Jews suffered from succeeding foreign conquerors, and during all this time they had consoled themselves with the hope of the Messiah.
In religion, the Jews had long been distinguished from most of their ancient contemporaries by believing in and worshipping one God, as compared with the many gods of the Greeks, the Romans and the Assyrians, for example. This God, Jehovah, was all-powerful, a jealous God who punished if his commands were not implicitly obeyed. The Jewish prophets presented world history as the moral judgment of God on mankind.
This conception of God naturally regulated the Jewish attitude to life. Jehovah demanded that Man should live in righteousness. Goodness is the road to God, and by the same road God sends happiness in exchange.
From this they developed the view that the exchange is not Man’s right, but comes to him by the favour of Jehovah, and that this favour can only be obtained by Man obeying God’s commands implicitly; that is, by serving God.
Jewish national life was controlled by these beliefs, and it is interesting to notice that throughout their long history of subjugation by foreign powers they struggled not for political freedom but for the right to worship in their own way. This right was almost always accorded to them.
In practising their religion they had gradually built up a strict code of religious observances, in which ritual and ceremonial played a great part. The central point, the focus, of the religion was the Temple in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple which happened several times in Jewish history was always regarded as the most severe of all punishments which God could inflict.
The Temple and the local synagogues were administered by the priests. The priests constituted a special class in the community, and for many centuries they were drawn from one clan only, the Levites, the office being passed down from father to son. About 500 B.C., when certain reforms were undertaken, a higher order of priests was introduced, with a high priest at the head of them. This higher order of priests administered the Temple, and had a far more powerful influence in the lives of the people than their political leaders.
To maintain this influence, they insisted on the strict observance of religious rites and festivals—the Law and the Prophets, as laid down in the Scriptures. The festivals punctuated the Jewish year to mark historical events, such as the Passover, which celebrated the exodus from bondage in Egypt, and so on. With the reforms of 500 B.C., however, a new festival was introduced. Called the Day of Atonement (the seeking of divine forgiveness for sins) and now familiarly known as Yom Kippur, it is thought to commemorate the day on which Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Tables of the Law and proclaimed forgiveness for worshipping the Golden Calf. (The story of this can be found in the Old Testament, the Book of Exodus chapter 32 and chapter 34.)
At the time of the great festivals, the priests required as many Jews as possible to make a pilgrimage to the Temple. Those who made such a pilgrimage and performed certain sacrifices when they reached the Temple could have a greater hope of forgiveness than those who did not.
These rules and regulations, like every other, were designed to give to the priests a greater power over the people than they might otherwise have achieved. It must be stressed that in their belief that Jehovah was the only One True God, the Jews held that all who did not worship Him could not hope for salvation; and that salvation could only come to the Jews if they obeyed the Law and the priests.
This, then, was the religious situation when in 4 B.C. there was born in the village of Bethlehem, about five miles south-west of Jerusalem, a boy who was given the common Jewish name, Jesus.
According to the accounts of the birth, life and teaching of Jesus contained in four short documents known as the Gospels “good news” the birth of the boy was accompanied by certain miraculous events.
His mother was Mary, wife of a carpenter called Joseph, who lived at Nazareth. Shortly before they were married, Mary had been visited by an angel who had told her that the Holy Ghost would come to her and she would conceive; and though she came to Joseph a virgin, she was actually pregnant when they were married.
Shortly before the birth of Mary’s baby was due, the Emperor Augustus decreed that a census of all the inhabitants of his Empire should be taken. For this purpose, every man was to return to his birthplace to be counted.
Joseph’s birthplace was Bethlehem, and he set out from Nazareth with his wife. When they arrived at Bethlehem, they found that all the public accommodation had already been taken and that the only place that could be offered them was a stable at the inn. Here the baby was born.
The birth was accompanied by a number of supernatural happenings: the appearance, to a party of local shepherds, of a choir of angels, and the arrival of wise men from the East who had been led to Bethlehem by a moving star. The latter had been told in dreams that a king was to be born in Bethlehem who would lead the Jews out of their present bondage, a declaration which they interpreted literally, though the actual meaning was symbolic that He would lead the Jews out of their rigid religious bondage to a state of spiritual salvation.
According to the author of Matthew’s gospel, Herod, the King of Judaea, also heard this news of the birth of a King. To avoid trouble in the future he first tried by a ruse to have the baby brought to him. But when Joseph heard that Herod was searching for the boy, he fled with his wife and the child to Egypt, and remained there until Herod died; while Herod, determined to rid himself of this threat to his throne, ordered the massacre of all the male children in Bethlehem who were two years and under, hoping thereby to include Jesus.
The next we hear of Jesus is on His achieving the status of manhood at the age of twelve. Following religious custom, Joseph went up to Jerusalem at feast-time to worship in the Temple. On the journey home, they found the boy missing, and on hurrying back to Jerusalem discovered Him in the Temple arguing with the theologians there.
When Joseph rebuked the boy for not staying with the family, Jesus replied, “Did you not realize that I must be about my Father’s business?” thereby demonstrating that from infancy He was conscious of having been sent into the world from God to accomplish some specific task.
For the next eighteen years, however, He lived in Nazareth in obscurity, working as a carpenter. After the death of Joseph it is probable that as head of the family He supported His mother and brothers and sisters.
When He was not quite thirty, His cousin John began to make a name for himself in Judaea as a prophet. John’s preaching foretold the coming of a saviour, of a Messiah, of the Messiah as preached by Isaiah five hundred years earlier.
It seems that Jesus realized now that John was referring to Him, and that He must begin the special work for which He had been born. So He went to John, and was baptized by His cousin in the river Jordan.
Gathering round Him a few young disciples, He began at Capernaum, on the Lake of Tiberias, in Galilee, a ministry of teaching and healing.
The main theme of His preaching was the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. In parables winch attracted both attention and curiosity, He described the nature of this kingdom or rule of God which He had come to initiate. At the same time by restoring the sick to health, by feeding the hungry and raising the dead to life, He demonstrated the divine mercy which was so different from the jealous and awful judgments which Jehovah passed on those who did not obey His commands.
The true God was a God of mercy and forgiveness; and His own role was that of the Saviour of mankind from the results of their sins.
The essence of His teaching is to be found in what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. Beginning with the nine Beatitudes (Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, they that mourn, that seek righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the merciful and those who are persecuted for the faith) and including the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon sets out clearly Christ’s moral code, which may be summed up as: Love your enemies, tolerance, honesty, simplicity, meekness.
This teaching, if not in direct conflict with the teaching of the priests, was so different from it and so appealing in its freshness of concept that God is Love that people were drawn to Him and collected in great crowds wherever He went. This naturally brought Him into collision with the religious authorities who recognized that if His influence spread it could mean the end of their own doctrinaire teaching and destroy the privileges which the ancient system granted them; in other words, it threatened their authority over the people.
From the early days of His ministry, therefore, the religious leaders determined to put Jesus to death.
For His part, Jesus recognized that only through death could He accomplish His task, the seed must fall into the ground and die in order to live.
He had always made a practice of going to Jerusalem for all the festivals, and visited the Temple for the Passover in the third year of His ministry He was conscious that the end was very near. By raising Lazarus from the dead and by cleansing the defiled Temple, He deliberately provoked the priests to action against Him.
Through the treachery of one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, He was quietly arrested after praying in the Garden of Gethsemane; an illegal trial was hurriedly held during the night; and on the morning of the Feast the religious authorities demanded that the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate, should authorize the crucifixion of their victim.
The Roman sense of justice at first rebelled against this application to have murder judicially approved and permitted, for Pilate had seen behind the arguments put forward by the religious authorities and had observed that they were not valid. However, when the High Priests threatened to denounce Pilate to his jealous and suspicious Emperor, Tiberius, Pilate agreed, though he made a show of refusing responsibility for the judgment. So Jesus was crucified on Mount Calvary probably in A.D. 29 or 30.
This is the full extent of the historical life of Jesus as we know it. His disciples claimed, however, that after His body had been three days in the tomb, He rose again, and the Gospels give accounts of several appearances which He made to several of His followers. The last of these appearances occurred forty days after the crucifixion.
On this occasion He appeared to the eleven disciples as they were meeting together in Jerusalem. After talking with them for a time, He asked them to go out with Him; and He went with them as far as Bethany, two miles east of Jerusalem, to the Mount of Olives. While He blessed them there, “he was taken up to heaven”.
Though the religious leaders imagined that with the death of Jesus they would remove the threat to their own authority, they quickly discovered that they were wrong.
Obeying Jesus’ command, His followers, after a short period of frightened disorganization, began to preach the faith which He had preached. It was the beginning of a mission which has lasted throughout the intervening two thousand years and which has spread to every corner of the world. No other religion has had so great an influence on the personal lives of so many people. Christians outnumber Hindus three to one, Muslims more than three to one and Buddhists four to one.
Christianity recognizes Man’s claim to a highest good, and promises blessings which constitute a full salvation for the individual. By his very nature, Man is conscious of his imperfections, especially in the realms of moral rectitude. Christianity offers release from the guilt and the penalties of sin for the individual, and holds out hope of final salvation for the individual. It is, in fact, this stress upon the individual’s relationship with God in which Christianity differs from other religions.
The principles of the Good Life as laid down by Jesus are without doubt the best rules which a man can follow to achieve the greatest spiritual fulfilment, whether he accepts Christianity as a faith, or whether he has no faith at all.