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October 21, 2016

8:13 AM

To Live and Die for Jesus: Social and Political Consequences of Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity

Typically, religion involves a significant social dimension. Beliefs, rituals,
ethical/moral scruples — these all characteristically find expression
socially, whether in participation in the religious acts of a given group,
or through interpersonal relations shaped by religious convictions and
teachings. Moreover, religion often is part of what comprises and identifies
a given social group, such as a people, a nation, or a tribe. We typically are members of such "traditional" social groups by birth, and the religion of
such groups is typically "inherited" along with the rest of what it means to
be part of them.

Even "voluntaristic" religion — that is, religion that people subscribe
to by personal choice (through conversion, for example) — characteristically involves a social dimension. To make this or that religious affirmation typically involves associating with others who share one's particular religious stance. The social entity with which the convert associates might be small, such as a localized circle of fellow adherents, or it might be larger, perhaps a religious movement, a sect, or a denomination. The geographical extent of such a larger social entity may be local or trans-local, perhaps even international. In some cases, the social composition of a voluntaristic religious group, whether local or broader in scope, may cross lines of ethnicity, gender, age, economic level, and social status. But, whether a person's religion is an inherited tradition or a voluntary choice, there is a social dimension, and there are social and even political consequences involved that are to be reckoned with in understanding any particular religious affirmation. To join in expressing the religious stance of a given group affirms and reinforces it, and each participant also receives, whether implicitly or explicitly, affirmation as part of the group and the benefits of participation in the group.

On the other hand, to dissent or to withhold participation in the religious
stance of a given group can have more negative consequences. In the
case of a traditional religion, it can mean that a dissenter, or merely someone who does not openly show observance of the religion, can be regarded by the group as behaving suspiciously, and perhaps can be seen as subversive,a threat to the solidarity and cohesion of the group, or at least a bit of a troublemaker. In the case of a voluntaristic religious group, those who are not adherents are typically considered in some way outsiders, whether they be regarded more kindly as lost souls who might come to see the validity of the group's religious stance, or are viewed more negatively as infidels,unbelievers, enemies of the truth, perhaps even a spiritually inferior form of humans.

If the religious stance or practice from which one is seen to dissent has an official status or is somehow especially linked with the political structures of the setting, then (whether by intention or not) religious dissent can also be taken as having political implications and can have political as well as social consequences. As I will use the terms in this discussion, "political" consequences involve specifically the actions and attitudes of government officials/representatives (whether local or wider), and "social" consequences have to do with the effects of a religious behavior upon relations with family, neighbors, friends, associates, and the rest of those who make up one's social world.
In the following blogss, I wish to focus on the social and political consequences of devotion to Jesus for earliest Christians, particularly negative consequences, the social and political costs of being a Christian in the early years of the movement that came to be called "Christianity." As we shall see, the social and political costs involved make it remarkable that the young faith proved as attractive as it obviously was for some, and also may help us understand better the limits of its attraction for others.

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September 22, 2016

7:23 PM

Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion

By the end of the first century, among the matters in dispute between Christians (Jewish and Gentile) and Jewish religious authorities, Christian devotion to Jesus had become prominent.1 In particular, it is commonly recognized today that the Gospel of John (ca. 90-100 C.E.) gives us evidence of sharp conflict in the late first century between Johannine Christians and Jewish authorities over Christological claims, although this
conflict appears in John's narrative as one between "the Jews" and Jesus over claims he makes for himself. Perhaps especially in light of J. L. Martyn's influential study, scholars today commonly see John's Gospel as
reflecting a bitter polemic between Jewish synagogues and Johannine Jewish Christians that led (at some point) to the expulsion of Johannine Jew- 1. The separation of "Christianity" and "Judaism" has received considerable attention especially in recent years. See, e.g., Α. Ε Segal, Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in
the Roman World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986); Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways A.D. 70 to 135, ed. J. D. G. Dunn (Ttibingen: J. C. B. Möhr [Paul Siebeck],

1992); Dunn, The Partings of the Ways: Between Judaism and Christianity and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity (London: SCM Press; Philadelphia: Trinity Press,1991); and S. G. Wilson, Related Strangers: Jews and Christians, 70-170 C.E. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). Scholarship has tended to focus 011 Christian developments, but see C. J. Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians: History and Polemics, 30-150 C.E. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994). See also Setzer, " 'You Invent a Christ!': Christological Claims as Points
of Jewish-Christian Dispute," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 44 (1991): 315-28. 
This  was published as an article in the Journal of Theological Studies 50 (1999): 35-58,
and reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press. I thank the editor and publishers for permission to reproduce the essay here, slightly edited.


To be continued ...

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June 29, 2016

12:17 AM

Worship of Jesus as Evolutionary Development

The first essential observation from which to proceed is that, in the contextof ancient Jewish monotheistic scruples (inherited by earliest Christians
from the Jewish religious matrix of the Christian movement), the worship of Jesus is truly an extraordinary phenomenon. It is entirely reasonable,
thus, that various scholars have seen this devotion to Jesus as conceivably as an evolutionary development that was somehow linked to the changing nature of the Christian movement across the first century C.E.
The specifics vary from one scholar to another, but common to all of the evolutionary proposals is the claim that the worship of Jesus as divine cannot have been a part of the devotional pattern that characterized earliest strata and circles of Jewish Christians. In order to assess any such proposal, it is necessary to be acquainted with the basic shape of the development of
earliest Christianity. For those who may not be familiar with the matter, I offer a very brief sketch before we proceed farther.What became early "Christianity" originated as a small but vigorous messianic group among Jews in Roman Judea,2 and then quickly spread to
Jewish Diaspora locations where non-Jews, "Gentiles," were also among those recruited/converted (initially, perhaps, among those "God-fearing" Gentiles who had become interested in Jewish religion through contacts
with Jews in the Diaspora).3 Especially (but not exclusively) through the programmatic efforts of the figure known as the Apostle Paul (Saul of Tarsus),
by about 60 C.E. (i.e., within the first three decades after Jesus' execution) small clusters of converts were established in various cities of Roman Asia and Greece, and (through the efforts of other, largely anonymous believers) in other key places such as Antioch, Damascus, Rome, and perhaps also Egypt. As well, especially in these Diaspora sites, the Christian movement included increasing numbers of Gentiles along with a continuing
and influential core of Jewish believers. By the final decades of the first century, however, Gentile converts probably outnumbered Jewish believers by a significant margin, and developments within Judaism of the post-70
C.E. period included an increasingly sharp rejection of Jewish Christians

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May 3, 2016

5:24 AM

The Change of the Ages

The Change of the Ages
Given the Christian view of the imminent transformation of the world and the establishment of God's kingdom, an apostle like Paul should have looked back to the life and ministry of Jesus as a milestone, a crucial point in the ongoing pattern of salvation history which would culminate in the Day of the Lord

The Jewish conception of history and time was fairly simple. The period
stretching back through known history was the "old age," an age of sin and evil and darkness, when God had permitted Satan to rule, when the righteous were persecuted and divine justice was delayed. The "new age" would begin with the arrival of some heavenly figure or messianic agent of God who would direct the overthrow of Israel's enemies and the forces of evil generally. This would be preceded by a build-up period in which woes and natural disasters would be visited upon the earth, to test the faithful.
Apocalyptic Expectations 
In some apocalyptic pictures, an archetypal evil figure, Satan himself or his lieutenant, would direct all this final mayhem, but he would ultimately be overthrown and the kingdom would dawn. Later, in Christian thinking, this figure would be known as the Antichrist. (He had a predecessor in Jewish thought known as the "man (or son) of lawlessness"; he surfaces in 2 Thessalonians and the Apocalypse of Elijah.) Still, the pattern of salvation history, stretching in a line from past through to future, fell into two sections: the old age and the new. Scholars refer to this pattern as "two-age dualism."

According to the orthodox picture of Christian origins, however, a radical new dimension has been added. The Messiah had come, but not the kingdom with him. Christ had died and been resurrected, but still the new age had not dawned. That was to be delayed until his return, this time in glory and as judge at the Parousia. Between the two comings of Christ, as brief a period as that might be, the gospel message had to be carried to as many as possible and the world had to be made ready.
If this was indeed the scenario faced by the first few generations of Christian preachers and believers, we would expect to find two things. First, a significant recasting of the two-age pattern; the coming of Jesus would have been seen as a pivotal point in the ongoing scheme of redemption history. Second, that very failure of expectation would have required explanation. For no one could have anticipated—and no one did—that the arrival of the Messiah would not be accompanied by the establishment of the kingdom. We would expect to find an
apologetic industry arising within the Christian movement to explain this strange and disappointing turn of events.

But do we find either of these two features in the epistles?
We have seen several passages in the Pauline letters which speak of the long hidden divine "mysteries" which God has revealed to "apostles and prophets." There was no sign of Jesus' ministry there, no indication of a distinctive stage between the primal event of God's promise and the present apostolic movement heralding the new age (as in Titus 1).
But the revealing passages are those in which Paul expresses his
eschatological (End-time) expectations. The first to look at is Romans 8:22-3: Up to now, we know, the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth. Not only so, but even we, to whom the Spirit is given as firstfruits of the harvest to come, are groaning inwardly while we wait for God to make us his sons and set our whole body free. [NEB] Here Paul's orientation is squarely on the future. The whole universe is groaning, waiting. Where is the sense of past fulfillment in the life and career of Jesus? Were some of the world's pains not assuaged by his coming? "Up to now," says Paul, has the universe labored to give birth, leaving no room for the dramatic pivot point of Christ's own birth and acts of salvation. Moreover, when
Paul does refer to present or immediately past events, what are they? Only the giving of the Spirit, the revelation by God which has enlisted men like Paul to preach Christ and his coming. We have here no deviation from the traditional two-age picture. 
To be continued...

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April 5, 2016

10:35 PM

Part 22

Christianity and other Jewish apocalyptic sects, more mainstream Jewish proselytizing activities, various pagan salvation cults, all had their apostles tramping the byways of the empire, offering brands of redemption and future exaltation for the individual believer. By the middle decades of the 1st century, the Hellenistic world, in the phrase of John Dillon (op.cit., p.396), was "a seething mass of sects and salvation cults," operating amid a broader milieu of ethical and philosophical schools only a little less emotionally conducted.
Stepping onto that stage is the first witness to the Christian movement, one who left us with the earliest surviving record of belief in a new Savior and system of salvation: the wandering apostle Paul.

When Paul steps onto that stage, where is he coming from? Has he been
inspired by the career of the man he supposedly preaches? Does he see himself as carrying on Jesus' work? Is he part of a movement which traces its doctrines and authority back to the Son of God on earth?
There is no sign of such a thing, in Paul or any other epistle writer. Instead, Paul is driven by inspiration, and that inspiration comes through the Spirit of God. He tells us this over and over.

It is all God's doing. God has set his seal on us by sending the Spirit. [2
Corinthians 1:22, NEB]

To be continued ...

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February 15, 2016

4:16 PM

A Thirst for the Irrational

A Thirst for the Irrational 
beings possessed a portion of the higher reality in that part of themselves called the "soul." It had existed before birth and been a part of the spiritual world. Now it was trapped in bodies of matter, but ultimately it would achieve release and reunite with the divine. The soul was immortal. Through the soul, the human being was destined to merge into some larger life.

Thus Christian ideas could show a respectable lineage for their division
between the soul and the body, between the lower world and the higher, between this world and the future one—none of which was based on any observable evidence. By the time We get to Paul, Greek rationalism as embodied most fully in the Stoics is being openly maligned. It is "the wisdom of the world" which God has revealed (through apostles like Paul) to be foolishness. Nor was human reason any longer the way to achieve the new wisdom. This too was a folly and even amenable to evil influence. The need for salvation could not be based on something as mundane as the power of the human mind to reason. In a sense, people looked for salvation from the limitations and weaknesses of being human, of living in an all-too-human world. The means to
that salvation must therefore lie outside themselves, it had to be part of the thing being aimed at. Knowledge of salvation and the ways to achieve it could only come from God, through faith that he was providing these things. People became convinced that they were receiving direct revelation from the Deity, through visions and ascents to heaven in dreams, through inspired understanding of sacred writings, through personal calls to preach. God was working in the world, and one need only attune oneself to him. The certainly that could not come from human reason came instead through faith.'

To be continued....

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November 27, 2015

10:12 PM

Transcending the World (part 20)

Formerly, religion had been tied to the state, an expression of the state's interests. People took part in it as members of a larger whole. But in the Hellenistic age, the focus of religion changed to one of personal concerns. With the world around them unsettled and fragmented, people felt a greater thirst for understanding that world and how to cope with it. But even more so, how to transcend it.

Instead of the pursuit of philosophy for the sake of pure truth and to further the health of the state, as Plato and Aristotle had largely indulged in it, philosophical movements were now designed to help individuals find a place in a troubled world and give them peace of mind. The most important were the Stoics, Epicureans and Platonists. These and other systems had as a central concern the nature of Deity and how one should relate to it (or ignore it), together with the question of proper and beneficial behavior. Only in Stoicism

Part One: Preaching a Divine Son was there any significant focus on taking an active part in public life; otherwise, the principal goal was to achieve freedom and self-sufficiency from the world. Such doctrines were preached by wandering philosophers. They were a kind

of "popular clergy," offering spiritual comfort—though usually demanding a fee.Some had immense influence on a wide audience, such as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who taught that the universe is governed by a benevolent and wise Providence, and that all men are brothers (in the sexist language of the time).

But philosophical advice was not the only thing people had recourse to.

Healing gods, astrologers, magicians with their potions and spells, helped cope with evil forces in the world, and not only human ones. The conviction that unseen spirits and forces of fate were also working against them added to people's distress. Demons were regarded as filling the very atmosphere of the earth and were thought to cause most misfortunes, from personal accidents and sickness to natural disasters. They even tempted the believer away from his faith.

Like the savior gods of the mystery cults, Christ Jesus offered deliverance from these evil forces, for the sacrificed god of the Christians was said to have placed all the supernatural powers of the universe under his subjection.

Some of the new Greek philosophical systems would have nothing to do with such superstitions. Stoicism and Epicureanism began as essentially rationalist philosophies. They aimed at living life according to Nature or to some rational principle by which the observable world could be understood or at least coped the. Views of Deity were fitted into this "natural" outlook. But during the 1st century BCE a fundamental shift developed, and it coincided with the revival of Platonism which had lain, to a certain extent, in eclipse for a couple of centuries.

In this new outlook, says John Dillon (The Middle Platonists, p. 192), "the supreme object of human life is Likeness to God, not Conformity with Nature." Middle Platonism, which soon came to dominate philosophical thinking in the era of early Christianity, was fundamentally religious and even mystical. A. J. Festugiere (Personal Religion Among the Greeks, p.51) describes it as embodying a desire to escape: "Ah! To leave this earth, to fly to heaven, to be like unto the Gods and partake of their bliss."

This was the great religious yearning of the age: to undergo transformation, to transport oneself into a new world, an immortal life, union with the divine in a metamorphosed universe. The new buzzword was "salvation." The ways to achieve it became the central concern of a proliferation of schools and cults, both Hellenistic and Jewish.

Higher and Lower Worlds It is largely to Plato (who absorbed earlier ideas from the mystery religion known as Orphism) and to the stream of later "Platonic" thinking which he set in motion, that we owe this sense of alienation from the world and the urge to move

beyond it. In Platonism, there was a clear separation between the higher world (above the earth) of spiritual ultimate realities, where things were perfect and unchanging, and the earthly world of matter and the senses of which humans were a part. As an imperfect reflection of the upper one, comprised of things that were changing and perishable, this lower world was decidedly inferior. Human

To be continued. . .

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November 15, 2015

5:18 PM

Part 19 The Son and the Saviour

This Son and Savior was not identified with a recent human man or placed in an earthly setting, much less given a ministry of teaching and miracle-working in Galilee. Instead, he was a heavenly deity who had done his redeeming work in the supernatural dimension, in the spiritual levels of the universe above the earth.

He bore strong resemblance to two important expressions of the time. One was a philosophical idea we may call "the intermediary Son," a spiritual emanation of God and a spirit channel between him and humanity; this was the dominant philosophical-religious concept of the Hellenistic age.

The second resemblance was to a wide range of pagan savior gods found in the "mysteries," the dominant form of popular religion in this period, going back to ancient roots. Like Paul's Christ, these savior gods were thought of as having performed acts in a mythical world, acts which brought sanctity and salvation to their believers. These cults had myths and rituals very much like those of the Christian movement.

Like the people who preached the kingdom of God in Galilee, the apostles who spread their faith in a redeeming Son of God, and the communities across the empire which formed in response to them, envisioned an imminent end or transformation of the world. It would come with the arrival of the Son from heaven. Such groups were thus sectarian in nature, and they too aroused hostility on the part of society around them. Even more so than the Galilean movement, and partly because it was so widely diffused, the Son of God faith was uncoordinated, with no central governing authority or set of doctrines.

In 334 BCE, when Alexander the Great led his army of Macedonians out of Greece and into Asia, he faced the ancient empire of the Persians and an even more ancient Oriental world with deep social and religious roots. Ten years later, when he reached Babylon after a path of conquest which swung as far east as India, the Persian empire lay in ruins and that ancient world was already being inundated by Greeks: Greek colonies, Greek ideas, Greek culture. The new ruling class formed a veneer which never fully integrated with the native populations, but the mix inevitably produced a new culture. Predominantly Greek, infused with the old still-vital bloods, the eastern Mediterranean world embarked on the Hellenistic age. Its spirit lasted even into the era of imperial Rome, whose own culture continued to borrow heavily from the Greek east.

Alexander's grand vision of a unified world of East and West was stillborn, for at the age of 33 in 323, weakened by wounds and exhaustion, he died of fever in Babylon after a drinking party. His generals fought for the spoils and the sprawling, short-lived empire broke up. The more easterly regions were almost immediately lost, but the rest solidified into three and eventually four kingdoms.

War between them was prevalent; areas frequently changed hands between one kingdom and another. Old social cohesions crumbled in the new unstable political situation. The Oriental temple-state form of nationalism gave way to one modeled on the Greek city-state, but without its former universal (male) democracy. Vast numbers of people felt lost and disenfranchised. Many had been displaced, and there was nothing familiar to return to. That ancient world was now bewilderingly multi-cultural. The individual was on his or her own.

To be continued ...

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October 19, 2015

5:04 PM

Part 18 Christianity

In reality, "Christianity" in its beginnings was much more diffuse. It was made up of several unrelated strands of activity within the religious philosophy and culture of the time, strands which lacked any common point or figure of origin. Only through a unique set of circumstances did all of those strands come together to produce the picture of Christian origins which the world has envisioned for so long.

The focal point of that coming together was the first Gospel, the Gospel of (as many believe -see my study on Revelation for an alternative view point ) Mark, which created the figure of Jesus of Nazareth and made him the personification of all the preceding strands. Once that turn in the road was taken (a good estimation is that it took place some time around the year 90 which is the common late date understanding. I hold any early dating of around 47—for which evidence will be provided), the picture thus created gradually impacted on the different expressions of the broader movement until eventually all those who styled themselves believers in the "Christ" thought that their faith had begun with an actual man who had lived at a recent time in history and had given rise to all the varied beliefs and practices they shared.

This study will continue to use the words "Christian" and "Christianity," but in that initial period before the Gospels bestowed a new meaning on them, such terms will refer to the wide variety of groups, a mix of Jew and gentile, that believed in a Christ or Son of God who was a divine Savior, but who was not yet regarded as having been on earth.

Two Traditions

With this overview in mind, the basic pieces of the Jesus Puzzle can be laid out. The Gospel story is an amalgamation of two principal and separate elements—the wedding, if you like, of two different parents. This was a 'couple' who had never directly associated, who may not even have been aware of each other's existence until those unique circumstances arose which led "Mark" to bring them together in his Gospel.

The first parent was a Jewish preaching movement centered in Galilee,  although it seems to have extended beyond that region. The itinerant prophets of this new 'counter-culture' expression announced the coming of the kingdom of God and anticipated the arrival of a heavenly figure called the Son of Man who would judge the world. They urged repentance, taught a new ethic and advocated a new society; they claimed the performance of miracles, and they aroused the

hostility of the religious establishment.

Some of this movement's traditions came from different sources, so that it comprised multiple strands of its own. No Jesus, divine or human, was originally present on the scene, although later in its evolution a certain segment of this kingdom sect (which also developed the Q document) envisioned for itself a founder figure who fed into the creation of the Gospel Jesus. Before his entry into the Gospel of Mark, however, this invented founder was linked to no death and resurrection, no events in Jerusalem. To apply a concept used in some modern scholarship, this side of the puzzle, this half of the composite picture of eventual Christianity, will be called the "Galilean Tradition."

The second parent was not so localized. Even though this side of the puzzle will be referred to by another concept in some scholarly usage, the "Jerusalem Tradition," and even though Jerusalem was an important center for this half of the Christian picture, in reality it too was comprised of many strands. It came to life in numerous places across the eastern half of the Roman empire, expressing a great variety of ideas. It too was a preaching movement, built on a Jewish base

but combining Jewish and pagan traditions and religious concepts. It was conducted by apostles who might roam far afield to deliver their message of salvation and establish congregations of believers.

That message was about a heavenly Son and emanation of God who was both an intermediary between God and the world, and a Savior figure. To some extent he was inspired by the traditional expectation of a Messiah; he was a new 'take' on that concept. He was variously called Jesus, or Yeshua (meaning "Yahweh Saves" in Hebrew), the Christ (Greek for the Hebrew "Mashiach," or Messiah, meaning "Anointed One"), and the Son. Some looked upon this new Son of God

as a Revealer who bestowed saving knowledge of God, others as one who had undergone a sacrificial death and a resurrection. All manner of apostles like Paul were going about preaching this divine being and often not agreeing among themselves about him; indeed, they could be at each others' throats, as passages in Paul's letters reveal.


To be Continued . . .

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August 31, 2015

3:11 AM

Class is now in session Part 17

Could this be because they are not in fact speaking of any such figure? Could it be that if we remove those Gospel-colored glasses when reading the early Christian writers, we would find that all of them, Paul especially, have been telling us in plain and unmistakable terms exactly what the earliest Christians did believe in, and what the Christ they all worshiped really was?

Gaining an understandable picture of the early Christian movement, to which Paul's writings are the most important surviving witness, requires that one delve into the thinking of the age among both Jews and gentiles: the philosophy, views of the universe and kinds of myths those people believed in. Christianity, like all other human expression, was a product of its time and did not arise in isolation from the thought world around it. Christianity was also by nature a sect, in that it adopted and advocated new ideas which brought it into conflict with the milieu it grew out of. Thus its development must be understood in the context of how sects behave and interact with the world around them.

As part of this picture of the times, one needs to be aware of the crossover influences which took place between Judaism and the Greco-Roman society it lived within. Even as it struggled to stave off integration, Jewish culture, more diverse than it eventually became under the rabbis, absorbed a great deal from its wider environment, especially in the Diaspora, those Jewish enclaves distributed

throughout the Roman empire and further east. Nor was the process a one-way street. Jewish monotheism and ethics were embraced by great numbers of gentiles who joined Jewish synagogues and sectarian groups in varying degrees of conversion. One of the features of early Christianity was the attraction of gentile believers who adopted Jewish ideas and practices, eventually considering themselves the new inheritors of the Jewish God's promise.

These mutual crossover influences gave rise to a new faith which was a hybrid of both cultures, and a product which would shape the future of the Western world.

Yet to use the term "Christianity" or a phrase like "the Christian movement" is fundamentally misleading. It implies that the phenomenon being studied was a single entity, something unified, that it began in a particular location out of an identifiable set of circumstances and events. It also implies—so Christian tradition has it—that it was all set in motion by a specific historical figure, Jesus the Christ, and by the actions of those who responded to him. But such a picture evolved only later.

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