Jesus and the Gospel the foundation of Christianity

Christianity had what looked like a most unpromising beginning. The contemporary observer outside the little inner group of the disciples of Jesus would have thought it impossible that within five centuries of its inception it would outstrip its competitors for the religious allegiance of the Roman Empire and become the professed faith of the rulers and of the overwhelming majority of the population of the realm. Still less would he have dreamed that within less than two thousand years it would become world-wide, with a more extensive geographic spread and a greater influence upon mankind than any other religion.

This failure of this hypothetical observer to foresee the future place of Christianity in the life of mankind can be readily understood. The faith appeared to begin as one of the many sects of Judaism. Although, as we have seen, the Jews were numerous and widely spread in the Roman Empire and here and there were found beyond its bounds, there seemed to be no possibility of their winning the realm to their faith. To be sure, Judaism was making many proselytes, but in spite of some tendencies to conform to the syncretis-tic trend of the times and adjust itself to the prevalent religious and intellectual patterns, basically it was exclusive and intolerant of its rivals and was too much the faith of one ethnic group ever to become universal. If that were true of Judaism as a whole, presumably it would also be true of its sects.

Even within Judaism Christianity seemed to have little future and still less did it give promise of outstripping Judaism. Jesus, the figure around whom Christianity centred, was of humble birth. At the very beginning of his public career he deliberately spurned as an unworthy temptation the suggestion that he seek to carry through his aims by political means. Although he performed many miracles, he always did so to meet an obvious human need, meticulously avoided any display of his power to call attention to himself or to prove his divine commission, and at times endeavoured to keep secret his astounding works of healing. He chose for his intimates men from the humble walks of life and had few friends among the influential. His public career was brief, at most probably no more than three years and possibly compressed within a year. He wrote no book. As far as the surviving records show, he gave little or no thought to a continuing organization to perpetuate his teaching and his influence. He gathered about him a group of intimates, known to history as the Twelve Apostles, and he is reported as having declared that they were entrusted with large powers, but our earliest documents contain no certain proof (although this has been hotly debated, and the precise opposite has been and is held by the majority of Christians) that he intended these powers to be transmitted by them in a continuing succession that would make for a permanent, visible institution. Jesus appears not to have taught systematically, but to have spoken as the occasion required — at dinner parties, to a woman of dubious reputation whom he chanced to meet at a well, to a stranger who appealed to him to intervene in a family dispute, and to those who at the height of his brief popularity sought to join themselves to him and were told so sternly of the high requirements that, dismayed, they turned back. He came to an ignominious death which seemed to be not so much tragic as futile. The authentic records of his life and teachings are so brief that they could easily be printed in a single issue of one of our larger daily papers, and in these a substantial proportion of the space is devoted to the last few days of his life. No proper biography of him exists, if by that we mean a book which conforms to what in modern times are set as standards. So brief are our accounts that there have been scholars who have declared that we cannot really know Jesus and that he is not essential to Christianity. Even a thoughtful visitor in Jerusalem in the first few years of the Christian Church would scarcely have predicted that from such a beginning this Jesus, the centre of loyalty of this Jewish sect, would be long remembered.

Yet that life is the most influential ever lived on this planet and its effect continues to mount. Here is the most thought-provoking fact of human history.

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