The holy city of Jerusalem is teeming with pilgrims for the springtime feast of Passover, many of them looking for an earthly king, a messiah who will deliver them from the yoke of Roman oppression.
Jesus of Nazareth walks into this city. His protests against the Romans make him a popular hero. To some, he is the messiah. But to the Romans, he is nothing but political trouble. So they crucify him.
Jerusalem had been the holy city of Judaism for more than 1,000 years, a place that the Romans had occupied since 63 B.C. When the Romans killed Jesus, somewhere around 30-33 AD, scholars say, the Jews were desperately looking for a messiah to free them from Roman oppression, to liberate them and their promised land. But there was disagreement as to who that messiah might be. There was no messianic checklist. Some people would have followed Jesus. Others followed John the Baptist. Others followed additional figures.
Jerusalem, with its massive temple, was the holiest site on earth for Jews and its priestly caste; would many have even noticed Jesus, the wandering rabbi from the Galilee? Who knows whether many Jews in Jerusalem at the time would have even known about the sect of Jewish Christians, people who believed that Jesus was the messiah? He would have looked and dressed the same as everyone else. He probably had some people following behind him.
Jesus was betrayed by his own disciple, Judas. And as Jesus had foretold in the gospels, Peter, had publicly denied him three times. Only a few women, led by his mother, Mary, stayed at the foot of the cross. Outside of the women who remained there watching, most of his followers actually ran away and hid, because they were afraid for their own safety.
That should have been the end of the Jesus story and it might have been if not, the gospels tell us, for the women, namely, Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Jesus. Three days after his death, they discovered his empty tomb. As he had promised, Jesus had risen from the dead.
The resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem, where they would soon get a sign from heaven. So they sit in a state of anticipation and expectation.
Then on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus died, the sign came suddenly. From heaven, there came a sound of the rush of a violent wind. It filled the entire house where they were sitting, divided tongues, as of fire appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.
So that Jews who were in Jerusalem, whether they were from Egypt, Syren, Greece, or even Rome, they would be able to understand this new proclamation in their own dialect.
These earliest followers of Jesus considered themselves to be Jews. They thought that Jesus was the Jewish messiah who had been sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures.
They were not, at least in the beginning, interested in starting a new religion. They were interested in preparing the world for its final consummation said by Jesus to be coming before many of the people of that time died. But that kingdom doesn’t come. That message it seems was false.
Then they get two messengers who could not be more different, Peter, a simple fisherman from Galilee, who was Jesus’ chief apostle, and Paul, a sophisticated Pharisee. Together they will create a religion that would change the world.
People have called Paul the second founder of Christianity. The religion is about Jesus. It’s a religion founded on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Old Testament God was gently pushed aside and the light was focused on His Son. This is kind of confusing, since according to the Trinitarians, God and Jesus, are one and the same. However, now Jesus/God was a mild and gentle deity unlike the killer warrior God of the Old Testament.
People listened to Paul because he was the perfect man for the job, able to speak to both Jews and Gentiles in their own language. He’s one of the first powerful intellects to convert to Christianity in the first century. Paul said this is the one who could heal your child, if your child was sick. This is the God who could raise the dead; this is the one who could end the drought, who could end the famine. This is the god who could do miracles, and so this was the only God to be worshiped.
Delivering the Jesus message put Paul and Peter in conflict. Peter thought the resurrection of Jesus was for the Jews only. If you wanted to be a follower of Jesus you needed to convert to Judaism and obey the Jewish laws. Paul was preaching that the Gentiles were welcome without conversion.
Peter wielded considerable power in Jerusalem, power given to him by Jesus. According to the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter — the Greek term for rock, petros — and on this rock, petra, I will build my church.” Peter became the head of the small Christian church that was centered in Jerusalem itself. So Peter was a key player in early Christianity, and according to tradition, was the one that converted Jews early on to believe that Jesus was the messiah.
There was another critical leader of the early followers of Jesus. His name was James and he seemed to have the ultimate trump card in the new faith as he was Jesus’ earthly brother. He was raised in prominence among the Christians of Jerusalem and eventually became the leader of the Jerusalem church. James agreed with Peter: Jesus was for the Jews.
Within two decades of the crucifixion of Jesus, Christianity faced a life or death moment. The major dispute in early Christianity was whether followers of Jesus have to become Jewish in order to worship the Jewish god.
Around 48 to 49 CE, the first apostolic council is called in Jerusalem to resolve the issue of Gentile Christians… do they have to convert or not. Paul argues that the Holy Spirit had descended upon the Gentiles apart from the Law of Moses. Therefore there was no reason to insist that those Gentiles be converted to Judaism in order to be a member of the church. James, the brother of Jesus, presiding over this Jerusalem council, agrees with Paul.
It was a huge triumph for the new faith, and for Paul, whose arguments had won the day. The message of Jesus was for the whole world, and those who believed in that message could win eternal life.
But the biggest test was yet to come. How will the Jesus message go down in the heart of the pagan Roman Empire?