What Were The Earliest Followers Of Jesus Like?

What Were The Earliest Followers Of Jesus Like?

Nov 26


By Robert Perry
Sign Posts
November 26, 2010

Original Link

I had what struck me as a fascinating CMPE (Conjunctions of Meaningfully Parallel Events) the other day. It was not stunning in terms of its parallels, but more in terms of what it had to say. It will take some explaining, so please bear with me.

Event 1:

I wrote a short discussion piece for the website of the Mustard Seed Venture, which is dedicated to trying to live out the teachings of the historical Jesus. My piece was about a certain scholar’s dismissal of the importance of the Sayings Gospel Q. I need, therefore, to provide some background about Q.

Q (short for the German quelle or “source”) is a gospel that has never been found. Rather, in 1838, it was “discovered” buried in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both gospels appear to be quoting from another gospel, for they quote this material — almost all of it teaching from Jesus — in strikingly similar wording (sometimes verbatim) and in similar order. Since then, Q has become part of the bedrock of New Testament scholarship, with the vast majority of scholars acceptings its existence.

What is so significant about Q is that it appears to be our earliest record of the Jesus tradition. Its earliest version was probably written by the 50′s (compare to the canonical gospels, written between 70 and 100). It contains many of the most influential, profound, and (in the judgment of scholars) authentic teachings from Jesus. For instance, it is the source for much of the Sermon on the Mount. Further, based on internal geographical references, many scholars believe it was written in the Lower Galilee, the very region in which Jesus lived and taught. So it appears to be our closest record of Jesus in terms of time, space, and authenticity. Its importance cannot be overestimated. Gerd Theissen has called it “certainly the most important source for reconstructing the teaching of Jesus,” and James Robinson labels it “our primary source of information about what he was trying to say, and do.”

Q reshapes the picture of Jesus and earliest Christianity. This is especially true if we take seriously the work of John Kloppenborg, a highly-respected North American scholar who has found evidence that the earliest version of Q was “sapiential” — meaning, wisdom teaching. In this earliest layer, Jesus is virtually anonymous. He is not the Christ, but merely a teacher. This teacher, however, is arguably far more challenging than the spiritual hero that Jesus eventually became, for his teachings call us to a radically different way of life, in which we live under the care of an unconditionally loving God and extend that unconditional love and care to others. Q, in fact, is almost entirely teaching. There is only one miracle story, and even more significantly, there is no account of the crucifixion or resurrection.

It is not hard to see the implications of this. If our best record of what Jesus taught comes from a community of followers from his own neighborhood and from within twenty years of his life, and this community saw him primarily as a teacher of a new way of life, and only secondarily as a miracle worker or someone who died on the cross (so secondarily that they fail to even mention this last point), surely this says something about Jesus himself. Perhaps he was not the guy we have assumed.

This implication was the source of the piece I wrote the other day. It was about a Jesus scholar named N.T. Wright who, unlike the scholars I tend to read, presents a very traditional portrait of Jesus, as someone who was claiming to be the Messiah and who very consciously came to fulfill Israel’s expectations that its god would act decisively in history.

My piece was entitled “Q is dangerous,” and it briefly chronicled this scholar’s rather barbed dismissal of Q (in his book Jesus and the Victory of God) as the basis for a portrait of Jesus. He particularly took issue with the notion that that there was a Q community: “There is no particular reason to suppose that this document represents the beliefs and lifestyles of a substantial group within early Christianity….The existence of Q Christians, like that of Thomas Christians, may well turn out to be a modern myth: a story told, without basis in real history, to support a particular way of construing contemporary reality” (P. 64). I then noted,

That last point, about “a particular way of construing contemporary reality,” is crucial for Wright. This whole picture of a non-apocalyptic Jesus coming out of Q studies is really, he says, founded in “the mythology of the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and the environmental protests of the 1980’s” (p. 43). It’s really about hippies, not history.

My point was that Wright’s more traditional Jesus really can’t stand up if he admits the existence of an early Q community in Galilee following a wisdom teacher Jesus. Indeed, one of his criteria for judging something in the gospels as likely to be authentic is when something is “credible as the implied starting-point” of the early church (p. 132). He even says that one of the aims of his book is to demonstrate “the continuity, as well as clear discontinuities, between Jesus and the early church” (p. 112).

So what Wright really needs is for Jesus’ earliest followers to be like the early church, not like the wandering, hippie-like radicals of the Q community (scholars agree that the Q community emphasized itinerant teachers and healers who carried on the itinerant lifestyle of Jesus himself).

Event 2:

So I finished my piece and posted it, and about 25 minutes later I read an article on Thanksgiving in the New York Times by David D. Hall. It started with the question of whether the original Thanksgiving included turkey (he says it “certainly” did), but it soon got into its main topic: What were the Puritans who gave us Thanksgiving really like?

Its main thesis was quite fascinating — that our image of the Puritans is seriously off-base. This image, Hall says, comes to us to some degree from nineteenth-century writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is this: “that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them.”

Instead, Hall reports, the colonists were actually bent on putting power in the hands of the people. They installed participatory town governments, made sure that any laws had been consented to by the people or their representatives, and even (in 1648 Massachussetts) made public their code of laws (the first place to do so in the Anglo-American world).

This placement of power in the hands of the people extended to the church. “The colonists turned away from all forms of hierarchy,” and instead “did much to transfer authority from the clergy to the people.” They got rid of bishops. Church congregations elected and dismissed their ministers and decided other major matters of policy. And though we may envision Puritan ministers as presiding over a theocracy, “the opposite is true: they played no role in the distribution of land and were not allowed to hold political office.”

Finally, Hall says that the Puritans were trying to be a reincarnation of Jesus’ earliest followers: ”Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another.”

To underscore this point, Hall titled his piece “Peace, Love and Puritanism,” ironically making the Puritans, of all people, sound like a bunch of 60s’ radicals.


As I read Halls’ article, I couldn’t help but notice similarities with the piece I had just written. These similarities are not as impressive as with many CMPEs, but as I made a list of the parallels, I lost any doubt that this was a CMPE. Here are the parallels that I could see:

1. A man has posted a piece online about the real nature of a certain founding people (early Christians, Puritans), who started a major tradition that carries on to this day (Christianity, Unites States).

2. His piece is about his disagreement with another writer (Wright, Hawthorne), who he feels got these people wrong.

3. This people either was (Q community) or was closely identified with (Puritans) the earliest Christians.

4. Against what the other writer says, this long-ago people really did embrace the radical, egalitarian values of the 60s’ counterculture.

5. Again against this writer, these people were not like our image of the traditional Christian church, with its exaltation of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (Wright) or its hierarchy of ecclesial authority (our image of the Puritans).

6. Getting them right counts, it has relevance for us today, as we should want to emulate their values of peace and love.

That last parallel was explicit in the Puritanism piece. Hall began his concluding paragraph by asking, “Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not?” He then says that in today’s society, “Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted.” It turns out, then, that we have something vital to learn from the Puritans. My version of this point wasn’t explicit, but was the whole assumption behind my piece. If we want to follow Jesus, then we need to listen to what his earliest followers had to say about who he was and what he taught.

As I said, the parallels weren’t terribly impressive, but were enough to qualify it as a sign. The meaning is transparent. All we need do is see the parallels as confirming the corresponding elements in my piece. In other words:

My piece was correct in holding up the Q community as the followers of Jesus who were closest in time and space to him. Thus, his earliest followers really were more like wandering “peace and love” 60s’ radicals than they were like the hierarchical, Jesus-worshipping early church we know from the New Testament. They were the group, not the primitive church as we know it, who had the real continuity with Jesus. And they are the ones we need to emulate today.

After the sign happened, Nicola kept remarking on how excited I was about it, until finally I asked that question myself. Why had this sign gripped me so?

As soon as I asked, the reason was obvious: This CMPE is making a real historical claim, and a hugely important one at that. It is not waffling about. It is not saying “both are right,” or “there are more important things.” It is wading in to a real historical issue and coming down firmly on one side. It is saying, “This historian is wrong. Jesus’ earliest followers really were like the very thing he is derisively dismissing.”

Of course, I can’t verify that this CMPE is correct. We are talking about a time that is largely lost to us, about which the experts have widely differing views. This sign may be dead wrong. But the mere fact that it weighed in so unambiguously, and the possibility that it could be right, is what grabbed me. As I’m sure you know, I see CMPEs as a voice from above, from a higher intelligence. And I find the possibility that such a higher voice could step in and give us the answers to real intellectual questions — historical, scientific, philosophical, theological — quite exciting. How can we not find that exciting?



Pulse on Jesus

The Search for a No-Frills Jesus (An article in the Atlantic Monthly about the Sayings Gospel Q)

Wikipedia on Q
The Lost Sayings Gospel Q
The Sayings Gospel Q — English Translation of the International Q Project
Q Web Materials
The Real Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q (by James Robinson)

Gospel of Thomas
Five Gospel Parallels
Historical Jesus Theories

The Jesus Seminar and the Westar Institute
The Mustard Seed Venture


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