Outline

I. In what sense is Jesus the "founder" of Christianity?

A. A comparison with Moses, Muhammad, and the Buddha makes clear that Jesus is not the founder of Christianity in the same sense that they are the founders of Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

B. Christianity is born, not as a direct result of Jesus's teachings or actions, but as a result of what God is claimed to have done through his death and resurrection.

1. A "Jesus" movement during his lifetime was, at best, disorganized.

2. Jesus died without the presence of his disciples.

3. Jesus's teachings are not orderly or systematic and seem to have a kind of paradoxical or parabolic character.

4. The struggles of Christians over the centuries to establish a way of life based on the teachings of Jesus are notorious.

5. The chronological beginning of Christianity is the experience of the Resurrection.

6. The Resurrection experience = the encounter of Jesus's followers with Jesus after his death.

7. Some scholars are reluctant to acknowledge the validity of religious experience in general, much less the religious experience that was the beginning of Christianity.

8. But if it is difficult to account for the rise of a world religion (e.g., Buddhism and Islam) without assuming the authenticity of a religious experience, it is even more so in the case of Christianity.

II. This pivotal experience can be approached indirectly through an analysis of the religious claims of the earliest Christians, drawn from the earliest letters written to communities.

A. The compositions are read phenomenologically, not in terms of their own specific interests, but in terms of what they reveal about the experiences and convictions shared by their writers and readers.

B. The first Christians made claims about their significance that are out of proportion to their actual situation in the world, and these claims to their importance were based on other claims concerning their current personal experience: They were saved, they were transformed, they were empowered.

C. The claim to the experience of power is connected to a central symbol and a basic conviction.

1. The central symbol is that of the Holy Spirit: They were touched by a personal, transcendent, transforming energy that came from God, not from themselves.

2. The basic conviction is that "Jesus is Lord": The power touching them comes from a man who had died by state execution but now shares the life of God and communicates that life to others.

III. The central claim and experience of Christianity is so provocative and paradoxical that it requires close explication.

A. It is necessary to distinguish what the earliest writings claim from what they do not claim but are sometimes thought to be claiming: that Jesus did not really die (i.e., in the Qu'ran and some Gnostic gospels, Jesus goes directly to God, without dying first); that he lived on "spiritually" in his words or in the memory of his followers; that his followers had a deep insight into his identity; that he was resuscitated (in the ancient and modern world there are many stories of people who have been resuscitated).

B. What the earliest writings claim is that the Resurrection experience involves the present as well as the past, involves Jesus's followers as well as himself, and is less a historical happening than an eschatological event.

1. Jesus does not "come back to life" but becomes the source of life: the "life-giving Spirit" (1 Cor. 15:45).

2. Jesus does not resume his empirical existence but shares fully in the life of God as "Lord."

C. A further important distinction is between these convictions, which pervade all the earliest literature, and the specific traditions concerning the "event" of the Resurrection: lists of witnesses, empty-tomb stories, and appearance accounts.

1. These accounts testify to the reality of the Resurrection and communicate some of its dimensions: bodily transformation, spiritual access, presence among believers.

2. Such accounts neither give rise to the experience and conviction nor fully interpret them.

IV. The Resurrection experience accounts for the power and paradoxical character of early Christianity.

A. The claim that an executed criminal was the source of ultimate power and life for all humans is both attractive and outrageous.

B. The nature of this claim accounts for distinctive features of earliest Christianity: its sense of immediacy and newness, its reconfiguration of sacred space and time, its focus on transforming power, its need to come to grips with the human Jesus, and its difficult translation into consistent moral teaching.

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