How do new religions begin? Sometimes by inches, over long periods of time; sometimes by subterfuge; sometimes on account of a blinding, perhaps revelatory, insight.
Judaism’s birth is lost in the mists of time. Canaanite religion contributed something to its genesis, and perhaps Egyptian faiths as well. Judaism had an insight, however, that was utterly different, namely that God was One. Over the course of hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, Judaism worked out the consequences of that insight—or revelation. Still, whatever Judaism was in Saul’s time is not what it was in Amos’ time. And from Amos to Second Temple to Pharisaic Judaism, it continued to evolve into the many sects we know today.
Christianity, in turn, was birthed as yet another take on Judaism and inch-by-inch became the variety of different sects it is today. Christianity and Judaism, in turn—as well as local faiths known to the prophet and his contemporaries—birthed Islam. And the process doesn’t stop there. Consider Baha’i and Mormonism. And if Charles Taylor is right, even modern secularism was birthed in the womb of Christianity.
And always, individual people—prophets, fishermen, marketing geniuses, mystics—played a critical and often surprising role. Whether it was Abraham or Moses, Peter and James (or perhaps Mary and Salome and Mary), the Prophet Muhammad or Joseph Smith, there is no shortage of people with some new idea or insight or manuscript, whether sensible or outrageous, who managed to find over time millions of followers.
I began thinking about how new religions begin as I read Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue.
Wright and Crossan discuss the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the birth of Christianity. Both Crossan and Wright agree that the founding of Christianity requires a precise historical explanation. And their dialog is about what that precise historical explanation might be. N. T. Wright argues, that at a minimum, the founding of Christianity resulted from the actual discovery of an empty tomb and the historical experiences of Jesus’ bodily presence. Crossan demurs. While not wanting to argue the empty tomb (it doesn’t figure in, for him) he does agree that resurrection experiences were key—though he might differ with Wright as to their nature. But Crossan adds that Christianity’s birth also depended upon what Jesus taught before he died, namely the kingdom as already present but not yet consummated. That teaching was the key frame that allowed the disciples to move from resurrection appearances to establishing the early church.
For the record, Crossan believes that while Wright’s two historical events could get you to an exalted Jesus as described in Philippians 2:5ff, it could not get you to the resurrection faith—an eschatological faith where God is now already cleaning up creation, a job that God expects Christians to get excited about and participate in. Of course, the cases that Crossan and Wright and the others in this book make for their perspectives covers a lot more ground and detail than I can go into here. But the point is, these two scholars, looking back to the time of Jesus’ death both believe that they can determine the “necessary and sufficient” (terms frequently used) conditions that led to the birth of the early Christian church.
But given the history of religions, and the incredible diversity of founding stories people have believed and even been willing to die for through the ages, it strikes me as odd that when it comes to Christianity these two scholars, or any scholars, imagine that there are both necessary and sufficient reasons why any of today’s world’s great religions would became what they are.
I’m reminded of what Malcolm Muggeridge once said. "One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we've developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity.It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God, they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse; they believe in anything." Perhaps, but it is worth asking why Muggeridge thinks that only people who stop believing in God will believe anything. Is it not actually the case that just about anyone, anytime, deist or not, will believe anything? And isn’t the variety of world religions with their competing truth claims proof of this?
In the case of Christianity, for example and for fun, imagine that Salome or Mary was so heart-broken at the notion that her beautiful new community of friends might fall apart after Jesus’ death that one of them concocted a resurrection story to keep her friends together? And what if after that a few others in that community (not surprisingly) had dreams about Jesus, or even visions of Jesus, a widely attested phenomenon in many different religions? Would such a beginning for Christianity be stranger than Joseph Smith or the Prophet Mohammad showing up with a manuscript and saying, “Thus saith the Lord?” In fact, we know from Rodney Stark’s work on the sociology of religion that people generally ask, “what do you believe and why,” only after they have joined communities, because it is the life of the community that draws them in, not theology. A few rumors within an existing and tight community like that of Jesus’ disciples might lead to big things.
No, rather than insisting that their “natural theologies” based on “scientific” historical reconstructions (different though they be) provide the “necessary and sufficient” basis for Christianity’s birth, I think we are actually unable to historically reconstruct whatever miraculous things might have happened in those first few days, months and years after Jesus’ death. Something happened, of course, as is always the case with new religions, to start a snowball rolling down a hill. Both Wright and Crossan offer plausible scenarios. I can think of others more likely than the one I just made up, above. But none of them provide both the “necessary and sufficient,” conditions for the birth of Christianity. That’s claiming far too much.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that the resurrection did or didn’t happen, but only that you can’t reconstruct what happened on the basis of its purported effect, the birth of a believing community.
I’m also not arguing against research into the Historical Jesus or early Christianity or theological discussions about whether it was a resurrection or visions or dreams that people saw. We don’t know everything, and it may always be possible to dig a bit deeper and get a bit closer to the facts such as they were.
I would argue, however, that whatever happened on Easter morning—and the years before and after—is something less than a matter of “necessary and sufficient” than it is of revelation and mystery. And if you are bound and determined not to merely go with the flow of what everyone else in your community believes but to make up your own mind, the only thing you can really do is go as far as the evidence will take you and then make a leap of faith.