CHRISTIANITY - The Launching of a Sect

Excerpts from The Jesus Puzzle

Earl Doherty


There are several epistles that give an insight into how certain individual communities among those, which eventually dotted the early Christian landscape, were actually formed. One can perceive a kind of “event” lying at the inception of a given sectarian group or apocalyptic circle. Anticipating a communication from God, awaiting inspiration while perusing the sacred writings, many in the fevered atmosphere of the first century imagined that such things had indeed been forthcoming. Two of these will be briefly addressed, with a third being focused in detail, one of the most fascinating passages in all the New Testament epistles: the so-called Transfiguration scene in 2 Peter.  

First, the Epistle to the Hebrews 2:3-4. The following translation is based on the NEB, but with its more fanciful elements removed: (3) What escape can there be for us if we ignore a salvation so great? For this salvation was first announced through the Lord; those who heard confirmed it to us, (4) with God adding his testimony by signs, by miracles, by various powerful deeds, and by distributing the gifts of the Holy Spirit at his own will. [The NEB in verse 3 reads: “through the lips of the Lord himself,” and “those who heard him confirmed it to us,” neither of which is supported by the Greek.]  

Most commentators are anxious to assume that “the Lord” refers to Jesus, and this may well be the case, but in what sense? Paul Ellingworth (Hebrews, p.139) compares the phrase “through the Lord” with the earlier phrase “through angels” (verse 2), making the point that in both cases it is God doing the announcing, through old and new intermediaries. This in itself waters down the idea everyone wishes to see in this phrase, namely an allusion to the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth. In any case, this is the language of revelation. The idea being expressed is parallel to the main idea stated at the beginning of the epistle, “in this final age (God) has spoken to us in (or through) the Son (en huio).”  

But the voice of the Gospel Jesus is never heard in this epistle; all the Son’s words come from scripture. Thus we are entitled to read these passages according to the overarching philosophy of the period: that God communicates with the world through his emanations, through a spiritual intermediary; in certain sectarian circles of Jewish thought, the “Son” Jesus, the Christ.  

The entire passage in Hebrews 1:1-14 reveals an era in which scripture was being newly read and interpreted to find references to—and the voice of—the Son, a spiritual entity who for this writer is “superior to the angels” (1:4). As “the heir of all things, through whom (God) made the universe,” as “the effulgence of God’s splendor and the stamp of his very being, who sustains the universe by his word of power,” (1:2-3) the Son is an expression of the wider philosophical concept—primarily Platonic—of an intermediary force who reveals and provides access to God, an agent in the divine scheme of salvation.  

The announcement of salvation referred to in 2:3-4, was delivered through God’s Son on a purely spiritual level, derived from scripture. Some experience of revelation, a perception of the intermediary ‘voice’ of the Son, came to a group in the past (how long ago is difficult to say, but some time has elapsed). Those who received this revelation had passed on what they “heard” to the writer and his readers. Likely these two parties were within the same community; perhaps they refer to two generations, though this is not clear, nor is the question of when all the theology contained in the epistle was developed.  

Verse 4 speaks of God confirming the original revelation by signs and miracles. The ambiguity of the Greek makes it uncertain whether such signs came at the time of revelation, the time of its passing on (if the two are distinct), or as a reinforcement of the message as the years went by.

But those who wish to see verse 3 as a reference to Jesus’ ministry are left wondering why such signs from God would be appealed to as validating the message of salvation, while the writer ignores Jesus’ own miracles, which according to the Gospels served this very purpose. We could also point out that Hebrews 5:12 also refers to the teaching received at the time of the movement’s inception, but rather than this being Jesus’ own teachings, such things are referred to as “God’s oracles,” a phrase which clearly points to revelation. Nor do the “rudiments” of faith and ritual which are listed immediately afterward (6:12) say anything of an historical ministry.  

The concluding phrase of 2:4, “by distributing the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” reinforces the idea inherent in the whole passage. This is a time and a process of salvation impelled by the activity of God’s Spirit, not by the recent work of the Son on earth speaking and acting in his own person. Whether through visionary experiences or simply an inspired study of scripture, God is perceived as making his salvation known, and confirming it by certain wonderful happenings. The conviction of such revelation was the inaugurating event of this sect—or at least of its present beliefs and activities.  

The Promise of Eternal Life (sounds like a vampire movie) 

The so-called Prologue to the first epistle of John points to a similar experience by the Johannine community at its inception. Here is the NEB’s version of verses 1 and 2:

(1) It was there from the beginning; we have heard it, we have seen it with our own eyes; we looked upon it and felt it with our own hands; and it is of this we tell. Our theme is the word of life. (2) This life was made visible [manifested, phaneroo]; we have seen it and bear our testimony; we here declare to you the eternal life which dwelt with [literally, was with] the Father and was made visible to us. . . .  

Here we have the description of an event of revelation, or perhaps a longer process symbolized as a single event, a moment when certain people believed they were receiving evidence of the offering of eternal life. These verses speak of that event, that life, in poetic terms, of seeing it, hearing it, touching it. Despite attempts by most commentators to make this passage a reference to Jesus’ ministry, the pronouns are neuter, the tone is impersonal, the language that of revelation.  

As the Prologue now stands, the offering of eternal life (in verse 3, not quoted above) is said to be shared “with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.” But there is some question as to whether any reference to the Son stood in the initial version of this passage. The key verse 2 talks of the eternal life as dwelling in the Father (we cannot presume to read this phrase according to later Johannine understanding) with no mention of the Son, and other parts too of this multi-layered epistle focus entirely on God. It is possible that the sect began with a characteristic Jewish focus on God alone, though with a type of doctrine and outlook reminiscent of groups like the Essenes. (See Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John for a fuller discussion of the Prologue and these matters.)  

The entire tenor of 1 John points to a belief in God’s actions through the Spirit, and through a Son who is a spiritual intermediary, not a recent historical figure. When the idea is broached in chapter 4 that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” an idea which is denied by other Christians whom the writer condemns, the confirmation of such a doctrine is the proper Spirit sent from God, not apostolic witness or traditions going back to an historical Jesus or remembered historical events. The Johannine community is one which, like the community that produced Hebrews, owes its formation to perceived revelation from God.  

At a post-epistle stage, some segment of this community came in contact with the Synoptic story of Jesus of Nazareth and incorporated it into its beliefs in a spiritual Revealer Son, producing the Fourth Gospel. (See the final section of Supplementary Article No. 2.)  

Spotlight on Jerusalem

Neither the Johannine community nor the one producing Hebrews are clearly locatable in time and place. We know of no names associated with either of these sects at the time these documents were written, with the minor exception of three local people who are mentioned in the little third epistle of John. (The apostle John, of course, is no longer considered the writer of these epistles, or of the Fourth Gospel.) Hebrews’ reference to Timothy toward the end of that epistle (13:22) is not regarded by all scholars as authentic.

But what about the group concerning which we do know names and places, the one that later came to be looked upon as the fount of the whole Christian movement: the circle in Jerusalem around Peter and James at the time of Paul? Paul’s references to this group of “brothers” which numbered over 500 and were engaged in some kind of apostolic work (1 Corinthians 15:6-7 and 9:5), show that it was probably a well-known and established body in Jerusalem itself. They seem to have been referred to as “brothers of (or in) the Lord” (see 1 Corinthians 9:5, Philippians 1:14), while James himself, apparently the head of the order, was known as the “brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19).  

We do not know when this sect formed, or for what reason. We do not know whether the “Lord” might originally have referred to God himself. What we do know, if 1 Corinthians is to be relied upon, is that members of this group underwent experiences of the Christ. These experiences have for almost two millennia been regarded as appearances of a resurrected human Jesus to his former followers. However, most critical scholars have come to the conclusion that Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 is describing a set of visionary experiences only, convictions on the part of certain people, including himself, that they had been in contact with Christ in his spiritual, exalted state. But with the possible exception of Paul’s own vision (though I regard Paul’s in the same way as well), these were not ‘conversion’ experiences, since the group was already formed. They did not launch the sect.  

And yet these appearances to Peter, James and the others may have played a role of their own in the genesis of the Christian movement. To arrive at what this was, we will look at a different sort of account found in another epistle, 2 Peter.  

A Second Century Silence

Scholars date 2 Peter anywhere between 80 and 125 (occasionally even later), but most (e.g., Koester, Mack, Kelly, Sidebottom) lean to a date one or two decades into the second century. The letter cannot be too early, for the author has lifted out passages from the epistle of Jude and worked them into his own piece, and Jude is definitely the earlier writing. Nevertheless, 2 Peter still speaks of Christ as an entity to “have knowledge of” (1:3, 1:8, 2:20, 3:18), implying revelation rather than historical memory, and there are notable silences which indicate that the writer has no concept of an historical Jesus and is unfamiliar with the Gospel story.  

Among these silences is 1:20, where the writer says that “no one can interpret a prophecy of scripture by himself.” Yet Jesus is represented in the Gospels as showing how to do this. Another is 2:1, a warning that “you will have false teachers among you,” which fails to include any mention that Jesus himself had prophesied this very thing. A glaring omission is found in 3:10: “But the Day of the Lord will come, like a thief.”  

Matthew and Luke (from Q) both have Jesus using the identical image, but the epistle writer gives us no hint of this. J. N. D. Kelly (Commentary on the Epistles of Peter and Jude, p.368) states: “Christ had Himself likened the coming of the Son of Man to the surprise break-in of a thief, and the vigorous image soon fixed itself on the primitive catechesis.” Yet something seems missing in this “vigorous” transfer to early Christian tradition, for neither 2 Peter, nor Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, can bring themselves to mention that Jesus had been the source of such an image; both also seem ignorant of the term Son of Man. (Revelation, in its two allusions to the thief image—3:3 and 16:15—does not assign it to an earthly Jesus in his ministry.)  

A very telling silence appears in 3:2:  

Remember the predictions made by God’s own prophets, and the commands given by the Lord and Savior through your apostles.  

Here the writer seems to lack any sense of Jesus having recently been on earth, issuing predictions and commands in his own physical person. Instead of saying that the Lord had spoken these commands during his ministry, and the apostles had passed them on, the writer is somewhat ambiguous, suggesting that the apostles served as mouthpieces for commands received through revelation or simply through personal judgment of what the Lord wanted. In fact, the parallel between the two phrases in the above verse, the former speaking of God making known his predictions through his prophets, and the Lord and Savior through his apostles, suggests that both God and Savior are using revelatory channels.  

Finally, we might note that 2 Peter is a polemical document, primarily concerned with countering accusations and contrary opinions from certain scoffers and errorists (e.g., 1:16, 3:3-4). Apparently these “brute beasts” are concerned solely with the Lord’s power in the present and future, and nothing of his incarnated past, for the author of this epistle never addresses any point of dispute concerning Christ’s life and teachings. No word or incident from the preserved memories about Jesus of Nazareth is offered to counter their objections, no miracle witnessed by many to answer the accusation that the power of the Lord Jesus Christ is based merely “on tales artfully spun” (1:16). And it is certainly a curiosity that nowhere does this author, who writes in Peter’s name, play his best trump card by appealing to the fact that he (Peter) had been a follower of Jesus in his earthly ministry and his chief apostle. (Helmut Koester, in his History and Literature of Early Christianity, p.295, refers to 1:14 as “the tradition that Jesus had predicted Peter’s martyrdom.” But the verb here is not one of speaking, it is deloo, to reveal, make clear, which places it without much doubt in the realm of revelation.)  

Lamps in the Darkness

That this passage is not a reminiscence of some event which happened during the ministry of an historical Jesus is clinched by what follows. Verse 19 presents us with a bizarre conclusion which the writer draws from this scene. Let’s repeat the verse here:

All this only confirms for us the message of the prophets, to which you will do well to attend, because it is like a lamp shining in a murky place, until the day breaks and the morning star rises to illuminate your minds. 

What is the writer saying? Are we to believe that the eyewitnessed glorification of Jesus of Nazareth into his divine persona, the very voice of God out of heaven acknowledging him as his Son, serves merely to support scripture?! That the entire ministry of the Son of God on earth is secondary to Old Testament prophecy?! (Kelly calls this “paradoxical”.)

The Translator’s New Testament renders the opening of verse 19 this way: “So we believe all the more firmly in the word of the prophets.” In other words, the writer of 2 Peter is presenting this scene as corroboration for the primary source of information about Jesus and the hope of his coming: the Hebrew bible. It is simply inconceivable that he would have so characterized the Transfiguration as presented by the Gospels. Indeed, it is inconceivable that he could have possessed any concept of a recent earthly life of Jesus, with all its teachings, prophecies, promises, miracles and the conquest of death itself, yet still focus on the biblical writings as the “lamp shining in a murky place until the day breaks.” This would make scripture the primary testimony, the primary basis, on which Christian hopes for the future rested.  

Kelly, in his strained attempt to explain the anomaly of verse 19, passes over this astounding focus on scripture rather than on Christ’s recent life as the lamp for Christians waiting in the dark for salvation. So does A. C. R. Leaney (The Letters of Peter and Jude, p.114), who notes instead that, “curiously enough,” verse 19 really says that scriptural testimony to Jesus is “more certain” than the voice of God at the Transfiguration—but only because the prophets spent more words on it and thus made it clearer!  

If, on the other hand, the scene the writer is recounting is a tradition about Peter’s vision of a Christ who has not yet arrived on earth, then the weight he gives to this experience is exactly right. Interpretation of the word of God in the sacred writings has been given support by a report about another form of communication from heaven: a vision of the glory of the Son and the voice of God himself identifying and acknowledging him. This vision is taken as a promise of his coming, supporting a promise made in scripture.

It is ironic that the writer began his scene with this disclaimer: these are not “fables” or “tales artfully spun” which he offers, implying that his opponents have labeled them this way. If the writer faced such accusations, surely the most natural rebuttal would have been a spirited presentation of the things Jesus had said and done during his ministry on earth. Instead, he manages to avoid any clear reference at all to an historical Jesus of Nazareth. Kelly, ever resourceful at discerning light where none shines, declares nevertheless (p.316) that “Peter”, in rebutting accusations that his claims are contrived mythology, has given his opponents “the apostolic version of Christianity, with its secure basis in history.”  

Evolving Interpretations

2 Peter clearly regards the appearance of Christ in his glory as a forecast of the Parousia. And Kelly allows (p.317) that there is some evidence in early Christian thought that the Transfiguration was an anticipation of the Second Coming. But this is not how the Gospels themselves view it. Instead, Mark 9:9 shows Jesus linking it with his coming resurrection, when he would rise in glory. (The fact that the apostles fail to understand Jesus’ reference to his rising from the dead shows that the evangelist is ‘editorializing’ and that for him the important link is with the resurrection.)  

If 2 Peter points to an earlier stratum (it would have to be earlier, since the interpretation found in the Gospels and the force of their resurrection story would hardly be lost sight of or abandoned), it is almost a necessary conclusion that this earlier line of thought was not only unfamiliar with the Gospels, but that it knew of no resurrection intervening between the “transfiguration” episode recounted in 2 Peter and the future Parousia. That resurrection, of a human Jesus in historical time, came only with the Gospels, when the tradition about an event witnessed by Peter and others was reinterpreted to point to Jesus’ glorification at the time of his rising from the tomb. (It does not matter that 2 Peter was almost certainly written after the Gospel of Mark.

The latter was not yet known to the author of the epistle, who was drawing on older traditions; and this would support the contention that the Gospels were not widely disseminated for some time after they were written.)  

Probably Mark himself conscripted the ‘transfiguration’ tradition into his story and placed it in Jesus’ ministry, where it served to provide a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection. We must remember that Mark had no post-resurrection appearances to draw on—and unlike his redactors did not invent any—so this scene would have served him as a prophetic substitute (though he was likely writing symbolic midrash, not perceived history). Its old significance as a forecast of the Parousia was abandoned.  

Roots of the Christian Movement

All of this opens up some fascinating possibilities. Does the tradition recounted in 2 Peter go back to an actual experience of the apostle Peter who is known to us from the letters of Paul? It is impossible to be sure, but there is no reason why this could not be the case, even if that tradition has subsequently been conflated with ‘elucidating’ scriptural material. And if such a tradition shows no knowledge or trace of a resurrection event, we are left with this picture of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem: not a community which reacted to the perceived rising of an earthly Jesus they had known and followed, but one which had come to believe in the imminent arrival of the spiritual Christ at the End time, prompted by a vision (or more likely a series of them) of the sort which later gave rise to the episode recounted in 2 Peter.

 The next question is obvious. Do we in fact have an earlier record of that very vision or series of visions of the spiritual Christ? Is it to be found in Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 15 of those various individuals and groups, including Peter, who “saw” the Christ, in the sense of receiving a revelation of him, an experience of his presence—which most of today’s critical scholars now agree is Paul’s meaning? If so, our analysis of the 2 Peter episode will support that agreement and point to the greater significance of those experiences in Jerusalem.

 For we may well postulate that, for this sectarian group, it was these visions of the divine Christ which resulted in the conviction that he was soon to arrive in glory to establish the Kingdom. It may even be that these visions were the “event” which gave rise to the charismatic missionary movement proceeding out of Jerusalem to preach the Christ and his imminent coming, one which the hostile Saul soon joined as Paul. Thus Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 may be regarded as pointing to the inauguration of the “Petrine-Pauline” branch of the Christian faith, at least in its active phase.  

Accordingly, we can place these verses in a kind of parallel to the passages we looked at earlier, in Hebrews and 1 John, as a record of events which gave rise to a new sectarian group or activity within the widespread salvation movement which eventually became known as Christianity. The episode which survives in 2 Peter 1:16-18, no doubt “glorified” in the interim (there is no necessity to think that Peter had his vision on a holy mountain, or heard the voice of God from heaven speaking a verse from the Psalm), gives us a window onto that momentous happening, adding some legendary light to Paul’s bare recital.

In all of the passages we have looked at, tantalizing questions remain. Under what circumstances did these revelatory occurrences take place, and were they responsible for the actual formation of the sectarian group? Or, when one thinks about it, must some form of organization have existed already, possibly of recent vintage, within whose volatile and expectant atmosphere the awaited manifestation from God or Lord inevitably took place?  

Paul’s gospel “kata tas graphas” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) suggests the presence and impact of scriptural study among such groups (as does the entire tenor of the Epistle to the Hebrews), and such intense perusal of the sacred writings may well have triggered the perceived “revelations” all these epistles speak of.  

What might have been the content of those revelations? Were they simply a confirmation that the spiritual Christ did indeed exist? Or did they include certain information about his nature and redeeming activities? Paul, as well as those who came after him, spoke regularly about the revelation of the mystery of God, the secret of Christ disclosed in the present time. It may be that ideas about such things as Paul includes in his gospel had been derived from a study of scripture and were then seen to be given confirmation by visions like those enjoyed by Peter and company.  

Such study may have been the reason for the formation of the group to begin with. Was this the founding purpose of the “brothers in the Lord” under James, sometime around the quarter mark of the first century in Jerusalem? Were they engaged in any proselytizing activity at the time of those visions, or was such activity largely the result of them? Perhaps the revelation was restricted to the fact that Christ was about to come and inaugurate the Kingdom, prompting an apostolic movement of which Paul became a part.  

We have no idea how long the Jerusalem group had been operating. Had it formed specifically to explore contemporary religious ideas about an expected Messiah? Or was it an exploration of the new divine Son: what he had done in his spiritual past and what he would do in the future? Perhaps the latter ideas were a product of the group’s study, no doubt influenced by developing trends of thought in the world around them. Perhaps it had begun as a more mainstream group—with the “Lord” referring not to Christ but to God—only to find itself swept up in the burgeoning new currents of the day. How sectarian was it, and did it have strong apocalyptic expectations from the start? Or did these arise in earnest only following those experiences of the spiritual Messiah and the promise of his coming?  

We are almost totally in the dark about the group’s specific beliefs and practices, except for what little emerges in Paul, and that mostly by inference. Acts purports to tell us much, but this document is a second century concoction, entirely at the service of the new myth of an historical Jesus and a unified origin for the Christian movement. While certain elements in Acts have a primitive character which may well point to traditions reaching back to early times, no actual sources have been uncovered for anything it presents, and everything would have been recast to fit the new plot line of Christian history.

For a key question remains: how much of what Paul was preaching goes back to the Jerusalem group and how much was a product of his own post-conversion development? Certainly Paul claims no derivation whatsoever from others, even though he acknowledges that they hold common elements (as in 1 Corinthians 15:11).  

But we must keep in mind that almost everything Paul tells us, or implies, about the group around Peter and James relates to the period when he began to write letters, that is, to the time of the so-called Apostolic Conference around the year 49. It is virtually impossible to tell if the doctrines which the group in Jerusalem believed at that time went back to the period of the initial visions and the sect’s formation, perhaps some two decades earlier. Interim developments, among them perhaps Paul’s own innovations, may have contributed to an evolution in whatever view of the divine Son of God Peter and the others held.

All these questions will never have firm answers. We are in the area of speculation. But we can add one more point here. Did the visions which ended up in scenes like that of 2 Peter have a direct influence on the creation of Jesus of Nazareth?

By the late first century, many factors were converging to initiate the evolution of the spiritual Christ into an historical Jesus, and some of these tendencies seem to have been independent of the Gospels (see my Part Three article, and the response to Jan). A major factor which led to placing him in the time of Herod and Pontius Pilate may have been these visions. While it might have seemed natural to place Jesus in the generation of the earliest known apostles, the tradition that Peter, James and others had “seen” him in his exalted state could have contributed to the idea that such apostles had in fact been disciples of an earthly Jesus, and that they had witnessed a transfiguration of the human man; later, such visions became appearances he had made to them after his resurrection.

Paul himself had spoken of seeing the “risen Christ”. What was lost sight of was the fact that Paul had not meant the recently risen Jesus of Nazareth, but a divine Christ who in the mythical realm had been killed (by supernatural powers: 1 Corinthians 2:8; see Supplementary Article No. 3), raised and exalted by God, all of this being the great mystery which God, through scripture and the Spirit, had revealed to those earliest apostles.  

Is two to three generations enough lapse of time to allow for such a monumental misunderstanding of the past to take place? In an era of war and upheaval during which much of Palestine was laid waste, in a society which (compared to our own) possessed primitive communication, record-keeping, scientific enlightenment and skills of critical thinking, in an atmosphere of religious fanaticism fuelled by fevered sectarian expectations of mythic proportion, that question scarcely needs to be asked.


Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus, Age of Reason, January 2005