ABOUT THE EXHIBITION –
The history of Israel and the earliest Christian communities is depicted on fourteen display placards.
One must, of course, keep in mind that some of these stories had initially for many centuries been handed down orally before they were written down, and that their writers for the most part had no historiographic intentions, but rather put their writing into the service of their theology, i.e. their testimony about God. Many texts which were previously understood to contain not only theological but also historical information, have by modern theologians (since 1930) generally been recognised as having in fact a mythical or legendary basis. The present exhibition takes some of these modern interpretations into account.
In the face of such findings, the modern reader may perhaps be tempted to question the credibility of the biblical message as a whole. However, one constantly has to bear in mind that the authors of the scriptures were not familiar with our modern notions concerning history. Consequently, one must read the Bible not primarily in search of historical truths but rather to understand development and the testimony of the Jewish/Christian faith.
Each epoch dealt with in the placards is also presented as exemplifying a basic theological theme connected with our present-day Christian faith. Here the reader is referred to a variety of biblical texts in order to give basic insights which are still relevant today.
Finally, each poster lists the biblical books which deal with the period concerned. In addition, an outline of the content of each individual book is provided, as well as (in bold type) a selection of significant chapters of the Bible where an interested person might start reading.
The following books were of great help in preparing the exhibition:
- Der große Bibelatlas, Pattloch 1998
- Gerd Theissen, Zur Bibel motivieren, Gütersloh 2003
- Preuss/Beger, Bibelkunde, UTB 1989
- Die Bibel überliefert und gelebt. Ein Medienpaket, 1987
- Elektronische Bibelkunde
The Bible comprises two main parts, viz. the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). The word ‘testament’ is of Latin origin and means ‘covenant’; it here refers to the covenant God made with man. In the story of Noah the rainbow is created as a sign and reminder of that covenant.
The languages of the ancient Bible are Hebrew in the OT and Greek in the NT. Besides these, a few Aramaic words are found in the younger biblical writings.
The number of books in the OT varies according as the Bible is a Catholic or a Protestant edition (The extent of the OT varies among Catholics and Protestants?)
- The Protestant Churches, like the Jews, only include the 39 scriptures which were originally written in Hebrew.
- The Catholic Bible’s OT is based on the Greek translation (the ‘Septuagint’, abbr. LXX) which was widely used at the time of Jesus, and on its subsequent Latin translation, called the ‘Vulgate’. The Septuagint included additional books like the 3rd Book of Esdras, Judith, Tobit, and the four books of Maccabees. Protestants designate these writings as ‘apocryphal’.
Even though the Hebrew original of the book of ‘Jesus Ben Sira’ has since been discovered, the book has not been incorporated into the Protestant Bible.
The arrangement of the books is according to theme: in the OT, the historical books are followed by the poetical books and the prophets. The order in the New Testament is similar: the historical books, the letters of Paul, other letters, and a prophetic book.
The setting of the events described in the Bible is chiefly the region of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, i.e. the lands of Mesopotamia, Israel, and Egypt. Only later, in the NT, does Southern Europe come into the picture.
With a length of 240 km and a width of 50-130 km, Israel is a relatively small country. The fact that this land – forming a north-south corridor between the Arabian desert and the Mediterranean Sea – has been fought over for thousands of years and that the nation of Israel has for most of the time been the ‘plaything’ of powerful rulers may largely be attributed to its geographical location.
The present division of the books into chapters was not done by the biblical authors but by the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, in the 13th century. The further subdivision into verses was introduced by the printer Robert Estienne in the years 1551-53. The chapter headings are formulated by the individual Bible publishers. These additions are for the most part quite helpful for finding one’s way in the Bible, although they may occasionally also lead a reader astray.
1. THE BEGINNING
The first book of the Bible, Genesis (Gen), begins with two different accounts of Creation.
The first account of Creation is probably intended as a statement of belief as against the Babylonian beliefs with which the Israelites were confronted during their exile (586-539 BC). This account clearly states that
- the world exhibits a distinct plan and order: nothing has been left to ‘chance’;
- the origin of the world is God Almighty who realised His ideas to His complete satisfaction;
- sun, moon and stars are no deities: their only task is to indicate time;
- man has a special place in Creation, with responsibilities and a specific mandate.
The second account of Creation is considerably older (ca. 900 BC) and shows distinct differences when compared with the first. Here, too, man is given a special position, but is also set clear limits.
In the succeeding chapters, man oversteps these limits again and again: the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, Cain’s murder of Abel, the Flood (Noah) which was intended to cleanse the Earth, the arrogance of man in building the Tower of Babel: all this clearly shows that the relationship between God and man has been strained from the beginning because man would not accept his limitations.
We also know of astonishingly similar Mesopotamian traditions about the creation of the world and of a great flood, e.g. in the Babylonian ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ which has been conserved in cuneiform writing on clay tablets (ca. 665 BC): parallels to the story of Noah range from the building of an ark by divine order to the sending forth of birds from the ark when the floods recede and thanksgivings after their salvation.
The Creation Theme : You too exist by God’s Will
The belief in God the Creator is a key element of the Jewish-Christian faith.
It embodies the following tenets:
- God created the world by, and in accordance with, His will. (He could have created the world differently, or not at all.)
- The Creation is therefore not the handiwork of an antagonist of God (Demiurge, or Satan).
- Nothing exists by coincidence. Every single human being on Earth is here by the Will of God.
- The Creation is not identical with God (Pantheism), but rather stands in recognition of God.
- Only God can create something from nothing (creatio ex nihilo), even life from death.
In the ‘Creation Psalms’ (e.g. Ps 8) and Job 38 and 39, we see that man can react to God’s Creation only in one way: with amazement and adoration.
2. THE HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS
God’s history with Israel begins with the story of the calling of Abraham. This nomad is told to leave his home country, his extended family, his known way of life, and set out into an unknown future.
The instruction comes from a god whom Abraham until then has not known. All the same, Abraham takes to the road . In the NT, Abraham is called ‘an example of faith’.
In the ensuing chapters of the Book of Genesis, this god proves to be a loyal, faithful God who travels along with Abraham and his sons Isaac and Jacob.
Jacob’s favourite son Joseph is sold by his brothers and is taken to Egypt. Later a great famine drives the remaining sons of Jacob to Egypt. There they are reunited with their brother Joseph who in the mean time has become a person of high standing and great wealth. They are welcomed with open arms, and Jacob and his sons subsequently settle in Egypt.
The Exodus Theme : Nothing for ‘home-birds’
God’s call to follow Him often changes the life of individuals – beginning with Abraham – but also of entire groups of people. Israel is later called back from Egypt into their old homeland, and later likewise from their exile in Babylon.
The early Christian community of the NT also sees itself as an ‘exodus (departure) community’: it isolates itself from the rest of society and thereby embodies a kind of ‘counter-‘ or ‘opposite world’.
Even today, an elementary ‘exodus-feeling’ may be said to remain a part Jewish-Christian religion. The God of Israel is no god for ‘stay-at-homes’. Christian faith yearns for change. Dreams, hopes, utopias cause people to up and leave in order to work towards a better, more just, and more humane world. He who stubbornly clings to traditional ways can not appeal to the Bible.
The Christian faith often makes great demands on men. Sometimes God calls them into His service in the most remote corners of the world.
3. THE MIGRATION / TREK THROUGH THE DESERT
(ca. 1300 BC)
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
The Book of Exodus reports that later Pharaohs have forgotten the good services rendered by Joseph and are oppressing the Israelites in Egypt. God chooses Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, but at first the Pharaoh does not grant permission. Only after the 10th plague, he allows the Israelites to leave Egypt, and the Exodus can begin. Even today, the Jewish Passover festival commemorates God’s merciful help and protection in those days.
In the desert, the Israelites experience various deprivations and temptations. Their lives are threatened by enemies while hunger and thirst gnaw at their faith in God. The past is suddenly idealised, and people start worshipping other gods. The sojourn in the desert becomes a real test of their faith (‘Glaubensschule’).
Despite their disloyalty God remains true to His people. In the pillar of cloud and fire as well as in the tabernacle, He accompanies them on their journey.
Theme : The road to salvation
All men live at a distance from God. Nobody is without sin, not even great biblical characters like Abraham, David or Peter. It is remarkable how honestly and fully this is reported in the Bible.
At Mount Sinai, the Israelites receive clear guidelines for their lives. By adhering to these 612 commandments, Jews even today strive to lead lives which will please God.
But neither the attempts to enforce greater responsibility nor the offering of expiatory offerings by the priests can make people lead better lives.
However, in the NT God finally opens a new avenue to reconcile man to Himself as well as men to each other, namely through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ.
In the NT, the importance of the Commandments as a way to salvation is pushed somewhat into the background, especially in the writings of Paul. What is decisive is Love as the central, basic attitude, and Faith, i.e. the trust in God’s salvation of man.
4. THE CONQUEST OF PALESTINE AND
THE ERA OF THE JUDGES (1300-1100 BC)
Joshua, Judges, Ruth
The Book of Deuteronomy tells us how Moses was denied the privilege to lead his people into the ‘Promised Land’. This task is now given to his confidante, Joshua.
The Book of Numbers narrates how initially some territories east of the river Jordan are occupied and allocated. Thereafter, the book Joshua gives an account of the crossing of the river and – beginning with the destruction of Jericho – the triumphant advance through the entire land of Canaan. This land is then divided among the remaining tribes descended from Jacob.
It seems questionable whether the occupation of Canaan really was as violent and forceful as here described. In fact, numerous passages in the Book of Judges make us suspect that the Israelites at first only occupied some “niches” of land before gaining control over the whole country over a period of some 200 years.The tribal alliance
One historical reason for the success of the Israelites’ invasion was their loose tribal alliance. Even when they were living in separate, non-adjoining territories, they always felt bound together by family ties, by their common history and their belief in Yahweh. Therefore the tribal groups were supportive of each in times of danger from enemies, especially by sending troops.
The commanders of these spontaneously constituted armies were charismatic leaders called ‘judges’, who were at the same time responsible for the administration of justice. This system remained in place until the threat from the Philistines finally became too powerful.
Theme : Patchwork religion?
The greatest challenge for the Israelites of that period was the fascination emanating from the religious cults of the Canaanites. The question which kept arising over the next few centuries was: ‘Is it possible to worship Yahweh and Baal at the same time?’ Of course, Yahweh’s commandment, “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods befor me”, forbids the worship of other gods (polytheism) as well as the mixing of religions (syncretism).
Also today many people are fascinated by all kinds of other religions. Many knock together their own religious persuasion from several different religions. Even if one’s own piety may profit from surveying other religions, a Christian believer will always know that
- there is only One True God;
- we are in need of salvation, and this is achieved solely through our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
5. THE ERA OF THE KINGS (1012 - 926 BC)
Samuel 1 and 2; 1 Kings 1-11; 1 Chronicles 9 – 2 Chronicles; Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Jesus Ben Sira, Song of Solomon
The Hebrews have settled in Canaan. But in the west a dangerous opponet has arisen: The Philistines.
This period of great danger binds the descendants of Jacob more strongly together. Voices are raised in favour of kingship. But Samuel, the last judge and at the same time a prophet, for a long time opposes the will of the people because he fears
- future competition/rivalry between King and God;
- abuse of power by the king (high taxes to maintain a court, concubines, waging wars etc.).
Finally Samuel anoints Saul as king. The king achieves some military successes but falls into disfavour with God. Meanwhile, the people have grown very fond of one of their military commanders: David.
After the death of Saul, David becomes king, at first only of the southern tribes, but later of all of Israel. He conquers Jerusalem and makes it his capital; he builds himself a palace, creates a standing army and an administrative apparatus. These measures probably are the reasons for his great military successes.
David is succeeded by his son Solomon. He builds the temple, but is especially well-known for his wisdom, his expensive court and his numerous foreign (i.e. heathen) wives. As a punishment, God announces the collapse of the kingdom. Israel would never again blossom into such greatness.
Theme : Wisdom
The wisdom of the OT made men assume that a man’s life is subject to a divine order, for experience showed that he who obeys God’s Commandments lives well, whereas sinners come to grief. However, this optimism weakened when it was noticed that some individuals had been suffering unjustly (Job, Ecclesiastes, Jesus Ben Sira).
Even in the NT the question ‘Why must I suffer?’ finds no answer that is humanly understandable. It distinguishes between human and divine wisdom. The latter is actually unattainable by man. Only through Christ all treasures of wisdom are accessible. (Col 2,3).
6. THE DIVIDED KINGDOM (926 - 721)
1 Kings 11 – 2 Kings 15; 2 Chronicles 10 – 2 Chronicles 27; Amos, Hosea, Miccah, Isaiah
The division of the kingdom
Soon after Solomon’s death, internal conflict arises. The kingdom is divided:
- The northern kingdom, comprising 10 tribes, is called ‘Israel’. Jeroboam is its king.
- The southern kingdom, comprising 2 tribes, with Rehoboam as king, is called ‘Judah’.
The division and ensuing border disputes weaken both states. Egyptians invade the country from the south, Aramaeans from Damascus attack the northern part. Philistines, Moabites and Edomites shake off Jewish rule.The end of the Northern kingdom
About the middle of the 8th century, Tiglat Pileser III etablishes in Mesopotamia the New Assyrian Empire and soon expands his influence as far as Egypt. The smaller states can escape destruction only by payments of tribute.
In an attempt to remain independent, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) joins an anti-Assyrian alliance, whereupon Tiglat Pileser’s son, Shalmaneser V, conquers Israel (ca 720 BC). Large numbers of its inhabitants are carried off to Mesopotamia. On the other hand, inhabitants of other parts of the New Assyrian Empire are settled in Israel. The southern kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, however remains unscathed.The prophet Amos
Amos is the first ‘prophet of doom’ whose words have been preserved. At a time when all seemed well, he tried to wake up the Northern Kingdom with his sharp criticism of contemporary society and culture. It was all in vain.
Theme : Turning around
According to the Bible, man can make radical changes in his life. He can turn his back on God and his fellow man, but he can also turn towards them.
The prophets urge the people and their king to submit to God and his Commandments – usually in vain. The fall of the Northern Kingdom and the subsequent exile in Babylon are the sad results. The biblical authors interpret the catastrophe as punishment from God.
Jesus, too, asks us to turn around. However, this turn-about must happen in the manner of a total reorientation, a ‘rebirth’. In this process he is helping us: ‘I will give them a new spirit.’ (Eze 11,19)
The theme of change, of the possibility of a turn-about, is one of the most positive motives to change one’s life. It says: you may always falter, but you can always make a fresh start. People are not forever bound by their wrongdoings.
7. THE DOWNFALL OF JUDAH, AND THE EXILE
(721 - 538 BC)
2 Kings 16-25; 2 Chronicles 28-36; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Nahum, Lamentations, Baruch, Tobit
The Southern Kingdom (Judah) was destined to survive for more than 100 years longer. Under the kings Hezekiah and Josiah, Judah for a short time experienced a new flowering. But then a new power appears on he horizon: Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He defeats the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and finally also Judah. In 598 he has the ‘upper ten thousand’ deported to Babylon, among them Ezekiel and King Jehoiachin.
When Zedekiah, appointed by Nebuchadnezzar as king of Israel, rebels against Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar captures Jerusalem a second time. The city and the temple are burnt down, and in 589 most of the inhabitants of Judah are deported to Babylon where they are allowed to live a relatively autonomous life in five ghettoes around the capital.
The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the exile in Babylon prove to be more than a political catastrophe for Judah: these events also lead to a crisis of faith among large parts of the population. Nonetheless, the period of exile becomes a very productive time for the Jews, for here they theologically reflect upon their entire history. Isaiah puts the new thinking in a nutshell when he says: ‘It is not the foreign gods who have defeated us, but Yahweh has appointed foreign nations in order to force us to turn around.’
In the days of prosperity the prophets had warned their people against the consequences of defection from God and had predicted their downfall. Now the prophets try to reassure and encourage their fellow exiles.
Theme : Substitution – One for all, all for One
All life is closely interconnected, so that one life can take the place of another. According to OT thinking and custom, a ‘scapegoat’ – i.e. a goat symbolically laden with the sins of the Israelites – can be chased into the desert or sacrificed as a surrogate or substitute.
But one can also act for others, carry other people’s burdens, and pray for others.
In Isaiah 53, in the ‘Songs about God’s righteous Servant’ (German: ‘Gottesknechtlieder’), the idea of substitutive suffering, i.e. suffering instead of someone else, appears for the first time. Nowhere in the OT is Christ so apparent as in these sections.
Jesus dies for others in order that they may not be surrendered to eternal death. Paul too is prepared to suffer so that the congregation may live.
In everyday life, people often fight to oust each other from their positions. Christians, however, must live for each other and help one another. Being responsible for each other, being there for one another, a spirit of solidarity, all this is part and parcel of the life of Christians.
8. A NEW BEGINNING (538 - 333 BC)
Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi, Daniel, Joel, Jonah, Judith
After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the power of Babylon declines. A new empire is on the rise: the Persians under king Cyrus II. In 539 the Persians occupy Babylon. The deportees from Israel are allowed to return home, and even to take back with them the temple treasures seized by Nebuchadnezzar.
It is not known how many exiles actually returned. Some of them had become prosperous in Babylon and shrank at the thought of having to start all over again in their ravaged homeland. The returnees probably had to live in rather precarious circumstances at first.
The prophet Haggai campaigns for a speedy restoration of the temple. For him, the fact that it is still in ruins is the reason for the difficult situation in the country. Finally, in 515, the restauration is completed and the temple newly inaugurated. Offers of aid from the Samaritans, the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom who had intermarried with deportees from the Assyrian Empire, had been refused.
A second group of returnees returns 100 years later, under Ezra and Nehemiah. They help with the rebuilding of Jerusalem as well as with the spiritual and moral recovery of the people. Too soon the exile is forgotten, too quickly people have returned to their sinful ways.
Theme : Hope
We find in the later scriptures of the OT that, in the face of much suffering, the hope for a new world becomes an important topic. ‘Apocalyptic literature’, an entirely new genre, further develops and expands on this topic. The expectation of a new world forms the foundation for the NT.
John the Baptist and Jesus proclaim that the end of the world is near. They warn people to be alert and to make their choice, … and they give new hope.
Jesus and the early Christians even go one step further. They are convinced that the threshold to a new life has already been passed, that the Kingdom of God is already here and that they are experiencing the new life. At the same time, however, the forces of the old world are still active. A Christian therefore is a citizen of two worlds, torn between sarx (flesh) and pneuma.
10. JESUS OF NAZARETH – BIOGRAPHY
(ca 6 BC - 30 AD)
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts 1-2
At the time of Jesus, the Romans ruled over a huge Empire. Its ruler was the emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), who allowed himself to be worshipped as a god. The Jews set their hopes on the Messiah who would lead them in order to expel the Romans from their land.
The exact year of birth of Jesus can not be determined as the data in the gospels of Matthew and Luke do not correspond. (King Herod died 4 BC; the census of Quirinius took place 6 AD; spectacular celestial sightings occurred 12, 7, and 3 BC.)
Incidentally, our modern era (i.e. year-numbering) was only established in 525 AD by the abbott Dionysius Exiguus, who with surprising exactness determined the probable year of Christ’s birth and called it year 1.
Jesus’ birthplace, according to Matthew and Luke, is Bethlehem, while he grew up in Nazareth. The gospels of Mark and John tell us nothing about his childhood.
According to the NT, Jesus was in the public eye for about three years, living and teaching chiefly near the Sea of Galilee. During that time he also traveled to Jerusalem, passing through Samaria, and staying for some while by the river Jordan. He healed many sick, held discussions with Essenes, Pharisees, Zealots and Unbelievers, and gave sermons, mostly in vivid parables, about the Kingdom of God.
The probable date of his death is 30th April 30 AD. Jesus had come to Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate Passover. His opponents used this opportunity to have him arrested and crucified. After his death and resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem and by the Sea of Galilee (the accounts of the gospels vary) before he ascended into heaven 40 days after Easter.
Theme : God inside His World
God takes residence in the world:
- He became flesh in Jesus Christ.
- Through His spirit He is present in men
- He is present in the sacraments
- He is visible in the Church, i.e. His ‘House’, ‘His Body’
Uniquely in the history of religion, God creates an unmatched proximity between Himself and men. Hereby the physical reality in and around us is enhanced, and even the ‘stranded’ in our society regain dignity.
God comes into the world. Man’s answer is faith. By this, man enhances his mortal reality and attempts to become part of the divine. However the belief in a transcendent power beyond our imagination may also carry the risk of disappointment.
11. THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
The message of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God is central to Jesus’ teachings: Man needs to be prepared. Yet, unlike John the Baptist, Jesus understands the Kingdom of God not only as something imminent but also as something already present among men. Where men are miraculously being healed by Jesus, where the seed of his preaching is germinating in people’s hearts and they are dealing with each other in a caring way, the Kingdom of God is already present.
Jesus explains the essential points of his teachings by means of parables. Here he illustrates by means of examples from everyday life what is meant by ‘the Kingdom of God’.
In his account of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Matthew summarises Jesus’ ethical teachings: Jesus emphasises that the mere adherence to the precepts of the Commandments is not sufficient. For it is not only the actual behaviour that must be considered, but the inner attitude is equally important: this must be an attitude, a feeling, of love and conciliation.
Jesus’ teaching and his eventual suffering and death are closely connected. He had to accept the possibility of his death from the start. One does not come into conflict with the rulers (Roman occupying forces and Jewish government) with impunity.
But in the NT, Jesus’ death is interpreted as ‘for us’: in order to lead men back onto the right track, out of love, God Himself dies on the cross and thereby closes the gulf between Himself and man.
After that, God demonstrates his omnipotence by ‘annulling’ the killing of Jesus: He resurrects His son to a new life, thereby defeating death once and for all.
Theme : Love
Love is both the source and the reason for the strong association of God with man. However, love also changes a human being into a fellow human being. Jesus is the prototype of this kind of love.
The history of charity, or love of one’s fellowman, has its beginning in the OT: One should not seek revenge but love one’s neighbour as oneself (Lev 19,18), one should help the weak, and the stanger in the land should be welcomed as a guest. Equally, the relationship with God should be governed by love.
The love of God and the love of one’s fellowman are already linked in ancient Judaism. But Jesus especially emphasises this ‘double commandment of love’ and sets it above all the others.
12. THE FOUR GOSPELS:
MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE, JOHN
The Greek term ‘euangelion’ means ‘good message’ or ‘good news’. The English word for this is ‘gospel’ (from Old English ‘good’ and ‘spell’ meaning ‘word’). As a genre of literature, a ‘gospel’ combines biographical elements (birth, baptism, life activities, crucifixion, resurrection) with the tradition and interpretation of Jesus’ message. Gospels are meant to be a form of proclamation, and therefore are a mixture of narrative text and proclamatory addresses to the congregation. This new form of literature is to a large extent a creation of early Christianity.The synoptic gospels
The first three gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) as a rule consist of small sections of narratives (pericopes) and are similar in format, content and language.
They are called ‘synoptic’ gospels because their message becomes especially clear when the three are ‘looked at together’ (‘synopsis’).
The close affinity between these gospels probably indicates that the authors copied some sections from each other’s work or, at least, utilized the same written sources. Researchers today favour the ‘theory of four sources’ which maintains that the gospel of Mark is the oldest and that Luke and Matthew made use of one common source as well as other, special sources.
The gospel of John has a different format and concept, and is clearly based on other sources. Only when reporting on the Passion of Christ, and in a few other passages, all four gospels are clearly based on a shared tradition.
Theme : Change of status
God humbles and God exalts. God expects a readiness to give up one’s own status.
Hannah rejoices in the fact that the Lord humbles and exalts (1 Sam 2,7). Mary rejoices in the fact that He brings down rulers from their thrones and lifts up the humble (Lk 1,52). Jesus encourages his disciples to serve and cautions against arrogance and pride. At the Last Judgment, many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first (Mt 19,30).
God humbles Himself by becoming human. The birth of the Messiah among humble people demonstrates a change of status. He is born into the world, washes the feet of his disciples like a slave, and dies on the cross – and is finally uplifted into heaven by God the Father.
In a world of hierarchies, the willingness to give up one’s own status and to treat others as one’s equals irrespective of their status is of utmost importance. The specific readiness of those of higher rank to serve others of lower status is called ‘humility’. By humbling themselves they also raise the relative status of the others.
13. THE APOSTLE PAUL (5 - 60 AD)
Thess 1 & 2, Gal, Philipp, Cor 1 & 2, Tim 1 & 2, Titus, Eph, Col, Philem, Rom
One of the most consequential events in the history of Christianity is the conversion of Paul (Hebr.: Saul) before the gates of Damascus. He becomes an indefatigable and convinced proclaimer of the Faith and, by means of three journeys (missions), opens up much of the Greek-speaking world for Christianity.
At least seven NT letters have been written by Paul, another six are tentatively ascribed to him (Tim 1 & 2, Titus, Thess, Col, Eph). The oldest of his letters possibly date back to 50 AD, that is 10 years before the first gospel. This means that these are the oldest of all NT scriptures.
Many of these letters deal with topics which are of current interest in the congregations concerned.
Therefore they are not to be viewed as theological treatises but rather as real ‘conversation’. Nonetheless, Paul ‘s letters also discuss theological subjects that are relevant to the Church as a whole. Here his thoughts about man’s redemption through Christ’s sacrificial death and the significance of man’s faith in God are the central themes.
Paul’s letters are passed on among the communities and much of their content soon becomes part of standard Christian doctrine. Around 100 AD there already exists a collection of Paul’s letters.
Theme : Judgment and Justification by Faith
Man is called to account for his deeds before the tribunal of God and before his own conscience.
It is evident that alone he can not win before this court.
However, God appears not only as the judge but also as the advocate who wishes to save the accused . In this way, the theme of judgement is opposed by the much stronger theme of redemption. This change of theme from imminent destruction to endless mercy is found not only in the NT but everywhere in the Bible: the fall of man, the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18,16), also in Hosea and Jonah.
In the NT, too, it is clearly understood that all men live under the wrath of God because they have turned from Him. But for the sake of one single person God’s wrath turns to ‘justice’. This ‘justice’ is not the impartial justice which rewards the good and punishes the bad, but a ‘biased’ justice which supports the weak and the poor, and even the sinner. ‘Justification’ here means ‘making just’, ‘making righteous’, ‘making stand up again’, ‘restoring one’s dignity’.
In this theme of ‘justification’ we see something of the ‘indestructibility’ of life: that despite of all kinds of failures, life, in the eyes of God, has the right to go on.
14. THE EARLIEST CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES
Acts of the Apostles, Heb, James, Peter 1 & 2, John 1, 2, and 3; Revelations
With Pentecost a new chapter begins. The disciples, who have thus far remained in hiding, are inspired by the ‘Holy Spirit’ and suddenly go out into the streets, announcing that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Christ, the Messiah. This is the beginning of the Christian Church, and the beginning of the break-away from the synagogue.
The first Christian community quickly grows to 1000 members. Peter, John and James are the ‘pillars’ of this community. After Stephen’s death by stoning and the first persecutions, Christians also begin to settle outside Jerusalem. By the time Paul is called as an apostle, Christian communities already stretch as far afield as Antioch and Cyprus.
Apart from Jews who had become estranged from the synagogue and Greek-speaking Jews (‘Hellenists’), increasingly also heathens are being won over to the new faith. The mission among the heathens is expressly permitted by the apostles’ convention of 48 AD, after there had been a difference of opinion between Paul and Peter. New converts would not have to subscribe to Jewish ritual laws such as circumcision. Some of the differences between the theological views of Paul and other writers are clearly discernible in their letters.
While Paul gains successes among the ‘heathens’, the original Christian community in Jerusalem under Peter increasingly loses its importance. Here Christians are also persecuted by the Jews: amongst others, the sons of Zebedee, and James, the brother of Jesus, are killed. After the destruction of the temple (70 AD) and the suppression of the rebellion under Bar Kochba (135 AD) the Jewish population is driven out of Jerusalem by the Romans. This is the end of the congregation at Jerusalem.
Theme : Miracles
God and man can create miracles and exceed all expectations. The OT tells of powerful signs and miracles done by God, e.g. the fulfilment of Abraham’s wish to have a son, Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the return of the Jews from exile. But even humans are able to work miracles, e.g. Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and certain prophets.
In the NT it is chiefly Jesus who works miracles. In the reports on miracles one can feel the intense protest against all suffering. These miracles nearly always aim at the improvement of human life, rather than at demonstrating Jesus’ divine power. His ‘successors’ also possess the power to work miracles, like Peter and Paul, even though not all their attempts are successful.
Even today, people must realise that their wish for a miracle is not altogether hopeless. Such a wish may be expressed in a prayer or just a deep sigh. The wish for a miracle unites people and expresses their unwavering belief that hope need never be totally abandoned. Over and above this, however, man may always rest assured that even in the most difficult situations his life is in God’s loving hands.