Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Story of the Christian Faith

A friend who is preparing for confirmation as an adult wanted to hear the outline of the Christian story in order, so that the stated Christian beliefs, morals and rituals become clear. It’s a tall order and it will take some time, but here’s a beginning.

The Christian story begins with a Galilean woodworker who preached certain things, did certain things and died in a certain way, only to—surprise!—rise from the dead. What we know most unquestionably about this man and his followers is that they were Jews and they assumed their hearers were Jews.

This is why the gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus (Matt.1.1-16). To Matthew (and, yes, his committee of scribes and redactors associated with the church at Antioch) the important thing is to show that Jesus (Yeshua? Yehoshua?) was as Jewish as Jews come.

The evangelist therefore traces forward from Abraham, father of the Jewish people, and unquestionably still held out to be a real actual historical figure (whether or not his paternity applies to all present day Jews). Abraham begot Isaac, who begot Jacob, who begot Judas (not Jesus’ Judas), who begot Phares ... all the way to Jacob (not Isaac’s Jacob), who begot Joseph the husband of Mary, “of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

Christ is simply Greek for the Hebrew Messiah, or Savior—not Jesus’ last name. Jesus may have been called Yeshua ben Yosif, Jesus son of Joseph.

The evangelist Luke, thought to be one of Paul of Tarsus’ converts to the faith, and also a doctor, takes a different tack. Luke, a Gentile, wants to convey Jesus’ humanity so he goes back all the way to Seth and Adam.

Both Matthew and Luke, although they differ in parts, go through David to Abraham. Jesus has to claim not only Jewish roots, but a royal ancestry.

The gospel of Mark picks up the story much later, when John the Baptist and Jesus are grown up men going about saying unusual things in public.

John, the last canonical gospel, that is, the last one traditionally accepted as reflecting the teaching of the original followers of Jesus, skips much further back than even Luke to the beginning of everything: “In the beginning was the Word.”

John, the youngest of Jesus’ close disciples, who probably declaimed his version to church scribes in the island of Patmos decades after the events, was cutting to the chase, to the very beginning, Genesis 1:1, the first sentence of the entire Bible: “In the beginning God created heaven, and earth.”

John makes the point of telling us that Jesus, as the Word, was there.