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At a time when so many different ideas about Jesus are being circulated, what more authentic source for learning about him than the Gospels? And what better way of studying the New Testament than with an expert who has spent his life pondering and teaching it? Scripture scholar Father Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is our guide.

Jesus: A Historical Portrait

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Takes Root

by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.

We often hear historians speak about the development of the early Christian Church, which conveys a sense of gradual progress spread over a relatively long period of time. A word that better describes the quick rise of the Christian movement is explosion.

The speed with which the early Christians developed a rich and sophisticated vocabulary and theology is historically amazing. Within the 20 years between Jesus’ death and the first letter we have from Paul (1 Thessalonians), these followers produced many professions of faith, hymns, titles for Jesus and distinctive rituals. The marvelous creativity of the early Christians provides a powerful witness to the person of Jesus, his resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit.

We will look at how the first Christians understood and celebrated the risen Jesus, and why and how they believed that he was alive and guiding their movement even as he lived in glory with his Father.

Faith statements of the Christian movement

The earliest complete documents in the New Testament are the letters by Paul. All but his Letter to the Romans were written between 51 and 58 A.D. to various Christian communities that he had founded. In his missionary work, Paul focused on the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the lives of those who had entered into Christian faith. He sought always to connect the Paschal Mystery—the saving suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus—with the problems and opportunities of those whom he loved and directed.

At several points in his letters, Paul quoted what most scholars have agreed were already formulated statements of early Christian belief about Jesus. These statements originated sometime between Jesus’ death and the composition of Paul’s letters. The ways that Paul used them suggest that they were regarded as common beliefs about Jesus that were held by most early Christians, or at least those to whom he was writing.


Faith statements in Paul’s letters

In 1 Corinthians, Paul affirms “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve” (15:3-5). This faith statement takes Jesus’ death and resurrection as one great event, interprets it as taking place according to God’s will as expressed in the Old Testament and describes its saving significance for us all.

The idea of Christ’s death as an effective sacrifice for sins also appears in the faith statement quoted in Romans when Paul speaks of “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” (3:24-25).

At the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul sets out to establish common ground with Christians he has not yet met personally. So he uses an existing faith statement to define what he means by the “gospel.” This statement (1:3-4) asserts that the Resurrection was the moment of Jesus’ victory over death and his full revelation as the Son of God.

In Galatians, Paul cites what was very likely a profession of faith associated with Baptism: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). Neither Paul nor the early Christians imagined that all ethnic, social or gender distinctions had instantly disappeared with Baptism. But they were convinced that these differences were not nearly as important as their new identity as members of God’s people in Christ.

Hymns in early Christian writing

There is also good reason to believe that Paul’s letters and other New Testament writings contain fragments of early Christian hymns. Pliny the Younger, one of the pagan observers of the early Christians, noted that they sang “a hymn to Christ as to a god” in their Sunday gatherings.

One such hymn appears in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:6-11. Though it is not a hymn we recognize today, it celebrates key themes: the Incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It evokes the Old Testament figure of the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 53: “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” insists that Jesus willingly went to his death in obedience to his heavenly Father, and celebrates his resurrection as an exaltation so that all creation should respond that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:11).

Celebrating Jesus as Wisdom and Word

Other hymns celebrated Jesus as the Wisdom of God, much as some Old Testament texts (Proverbs 8, Sirach 24 and Wisdom 7) poetically portray Wisdom as a female figure reflecting the presence of God’s wisdom among humans. The early Christian hymn in Paul’s letter to the Colossians uses images and phrases from those biblical poems to describe Jesus as the Wisdom of God: “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Then it identifies the risen Jesus as the Wisdom of God (“the firstborn from the dead”), claims that the fullness of God dwells in him and affirms that by his death (“through the blood of his cross”) God has reconciled all creation to himself (1:15-20).

Another early Christian hymn, this one at the beginning of John’s Gospel, celebrates Jesus as the Word of God (1:1-18). It describes him in terms of what the Old Testament poems say about the figure of Wisdom. It also introduces the master theme of John’s Gospel: Jesus is both the revealer and the revelation of God. In other words, God has spoken definitively through the Word who has become flesh. And if we wish to know who God is and what God wants to tell us, we must listen to Jesus as the Word of God.

What’s in a name?

The New Testament writings apply many titles or honorific names to Jesus. Some, like “Prophet” and “Teacher,” reflect the activities of Jesus during his earthly ministry. We have seen already how early hymns celebrated Jesus as the “Servant of God” and the “Wisdom of God.” Still other titles like “Son of God” and “Lord” express his extraordinary dignity during his earthly career and especially after his resurrection.

What are we today to make of all these different titles? No one of them exhausts the identity of Jesus. But each one of them expresses an aspect of the person of Jesus. Just as a diamond’s many facets reveal its beauty when viewed from different angles, so the many titles of Jesus reveal different aspects of his person and allow us to see more clearly who he really was.

Christ, Messiah, Son of Man

The titles “Christ” and “Messiah”— both words mean “the Anointed One” in Greek and Hebrew, respectively— quickly became associated with Jesus. In Paul’s letters, “Christ” has practically become Jesus’ second name. Rooted in Jesus’ identity as a legal descendant of King David through Joseph, the title “Messiah” was very likely applied to Jesus by some of his fellow Jews who were impressed by his healing powers and were hoping that he would emerge as a powerful king for Israel. However, by his willing acceptance of suffering and death, Jesus redefined what it meant to be the Messiah of Israel.

The title “Son of Man” is used in three ways in the Gospels: 1) as Jesus’ way of identifying himself, 2) in connection with the predictions of his passion and death, and 3) as a description of a glorious figure who will preside at the Last Judgment. “Son of Man” has deep roots in the Old Testament. It expresses Jesus’ humanity as a “Son of Adam” (Ezekiel) and his role as a key figure in the full coming of God’s Kingdom (Daniel).

Son of God and Lord

The title “Son of God” appears in the Old Testament in connection with the king at his coronation (Psalm 2) and with Israel as the people of God. Applying the title to Jesus was surely rooted in his own relationship of intimacy with God as his heavenly Father and in his invitation to his followers to address God with the title “Father.”

The title “Lord” reflects early Christian beliefs about the divinity of Jesus. The Greek Old Testament uses “Lord” (kyrios) to translate the Hebrew Bible’s term “Yahweh.” The oldest verse in the New Testament (1 Thessalonians 1:1) refers to “the Lord Jesus Christ.” This way of talking about Jesus appears all through the New Testament letters, suggesting that the title “Lord” was commonly accepted among early Christians. Finally, John’s Gospel begins with the affirmation that “the Word was God” (1:1) and reaches its climax with the apostle Thomas’s confession that Jesus is “my Lord and my God” (20:28).


The two distinctive—even defining—rituals in early Christianity were Baptism and the Eucharist. At the root of both sacraments was the belief that, in and through them, believers can participate in the life of the risen Jesus.

Jesus began his public life by accepting baptism administered by John the Baptist. John seems to have served as an inspiration and a mentor for Jesus, and Jesus continued John’s work of proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God and challenging people to prepare for it.

Early Christian Baptism surely had a basis in John’s baptism. However, in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection it quickly received a new theological meaning. It came to be understood as the ritual through which people of faith entered into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection (see Romans 6:3-4) and thus into the life of the Holy Trinity (see Matthew 28:19).

Unifying meals

One of the most controversial features of Jesus’ public ministry was his practice of sharing meals, often with socially and religiously “marginal” persons such as tax collectors and sinners. To some extent, these meals were “enacted parables” or symbolic demonstrations of the banquet to be celebrated in the fullness of God’s Kingdom.

At his Last Supper, the night before Jesus died, he identified the bread with his body and the wine with his blood. That meal became a preview of his passion and death, and the Eucharist celebrated in early Christian communities came to be understood as both the memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper (and his death and resurrection) and the preview of the messianic banquet in God’s Kingdom. The Eucharist is the sacrament of ongoing Christian life by which we participate in the life of the risen Christ.


The first years after Jesus’ death and resurrection constituted more of an explosion than a development of the Christian Church. The professions of faith about Jesus and his significance for us, the hymns celebrating him as God’s Servant and as the Wisdom of God, the many titles applied to Jesus in order to express the richness of his person, and the rituals of Baptism and the Eucharist—all of these arose within 20 years after his death on the cross. The extraordinary speed with which the language, theology and practices of the early Christians emerged is an eloquent witness to the power of Jesus’ person and to his resurrection.


• Which title for Jesus means the most to you in your faith life right now? What does this reveal about your relationship with God?

• Why do you think Baptism and Eucharist were the first sacraments to be ritualized in the early Christian community? How can the special significance of these sacraments rouse your own baptismal call and participation in the Eucharist?

• The early Church didn’t slowly develop—it “exploded.” The first Christians must have been truly enlivened by their faith in Jesus Christ. In what area does your faith need new life? What can you do to bring this about?


Next: When He Comes Again


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