The Followers of Jesus


Primitive Christianity was a Jewish movement
Summary; original © Heikki Räisänen 1992.

Jesus and his first followers were Jews who observed the normal Jewish way of life. A new religion arose only when the Jewish identity had disappeared and the Jewish way of life was abandoned. Of crucial significance was their attitude to the Torah (the Law of Moses, its teaching and its practical applications), in particular circumcision and the dietary rules. During the course of history these had become central symbols of Jewish identity.

The Jesus Movement
Summary; original © Heikki Räisänen 1992.

The movement that formed around Jesus did not collapse when Jesus was executed. Soon he was seen alive, and these experiences were interpreted as evidence that God had raised him from the dead. Again this was seen as a sign that the principal event of the end-time, the resurrection of the dead, was beginning. The return of Jesus and his assumption of power were expected with fervour. The Jesus movement was decidedly an eschatological movement.

The movement was visibly represented by the preachers who like Jesus wandered around Palestine communicating the message of the Kingdom of God to Israel. Their supporters formed small communities.

The community that grew up in Jerusalem was an important centre of the new sect. Its members still attended the Temple cult and synagogue worship, but they also held their own meetings in homes. There were different groups within the community and tension grew between them.

The Hellenists
Summary; original © Heikki Räisänen 1992.

The movement consisting of Jesus' first followers could not have developed into a world religion. The basis for the new developments was created in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem there was not one primitive church but two. A separate group was early on formed by the so-called 'Hellenists' led by Stephen and Philip (see Acts 6:5). The 'Hellenists' were Diaspora Jews who had moved to Jerusalem and there joined the Jesus movement. They were distinguished from the 'Hebrews' led by Peter and companions by language and partly by cultural legacy. The Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the Hellenists Greek.

There soon appeared serious tensions between the Hebrews and the Hellenists. The situation was made more inflamed by the attitude of the Christian Hellenists to non-Christian Jews. The reasons for the conflict were the Hellenists' liberal attitude towards the Torah and its purity regulations, criticism of the Temple and an open-hearted attitude towards Gentiles. Finally the Hellenists were forced to flee from Jerusalem. The Hebrews remained.

Some of the Hellenists ended up in Antioch. Some preached there to non-Jews, and the Jesus movement received into membership its first uncircumcised men. The church of Antioch became a stronghold of liberal interpretation of the message of Jesus and an important centre of the Hellenistic branch of the original Jesus movement.

Characteristic of the charismatic atmosphere of the movement was the breaking down of barriers: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

Of central importance theologically was the spiritualization of the message of Jesus. The expectation of a crisis in history of national significance for the Jews was replaced by the hope of a better life after death which applied to all people. Of prime significance was a person's relationship with Christ, who had freed him or her from the power of death and evil.

The idea of the resurrection of the body changed into the idea of the immortality of the soul. The person of Jesus began increasingly to assume divine characteristics. He was equated with divine Wisdom born at the beginning of time. Hellenistic Judaism spoke of Wisdom as if of an independent person.

The former enemy of the Jesus movement,Saul of Tarsus, found his way to Antioch. Paul later came to represent an even more liberal attitude towards the Torah than that of the Antiochenes.

The spiritualization and individualism which had begun in Hellenistic Christianity developed even further and reached a peak in Gnostic Christianity.

The Significance of Paul in the Origins of Christianity

Paul's part in the origin of Christianity should not be underestimated. Jesus did not found a new religion. He and his first followers were active within Judaism. The development towards a new religion only began when the Jesus movement gained a foothold among non-Jews. Here Paul played a principal role.

On the other hand, Paul's position is more prominent than it was during his life. The letters of Paul are the only surviving sources from the first Christian generation. The latter half of the Acts of the Apostles could be entitled "The Adventures of Paul". In the Pastoral Letters written by disciples of Paul instructions are given in Paul's name, appealing to Paul's authority.

Originally the significance and authority of Paul were, however, anything but undisputed. He had numerous adversaries, and the type of Christianity which he represented was only one movement within the field of early Christianity.

"Pauline Christianity" was not Paul's own creation. In his letters Paul anchors his view of Christ on statements which he had received from tradition. They came from Christians who had interpreted the meaning of Jesus using the familiar concepts of Hellenistic Judaism. Hellenistic Judaism identified the Law of Moses with the figure of Divine Wisdom (Sophia). In the Christian version of this myth Jesus and Divine Wisdom were again identified. The person and teaching of Jesus took the place of the Jewish Law.

Paul's Background

The details of Paul's background are recounted in his letters and in the Acts of the Apostles, written by the evangelist Luke. In his letters Paul mentions that he was a member of the Pharisaic movement and had received a traditional Jewish upbringing (Phil. 3:5-6; cf. 2 Cor. 11:22; Rom. 11:1, Gal. 1:14; 2:15.). At the same time his roots were deep in Greek culture. He came from a Greek-speaking environment and had received a Greek education. This is revealed by his good grasp of contemporary popular philosophy and rhetoric.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts that Paul's Jewish name was Saul and that he came from Tarsus in Asia Minor. Tarsus was a cultivated trading centre on the trade route from Syria to Anatolia. In addition, the Acts of the Apostles mentions that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had spent his youth as a pupil of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem. These facts are in partial agreement with the picture that we have of Paul from his own letters. On the other hand, nothing in his letters confirms them. Therefore they must be regarded as possible but not certain.

From both Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles it appears that Paul was originally an opponent of the church. In his letters he states that he had persecuted the Jesus movement (see e.g. Gal. 1:13). Later a volte-face had taken place in Paul's life when he saw a vision which he interpreted (1) as a revelation of the Risen One, which made him a plenipotentiary or apostle of Christ, (2) as an exhortation to take the Christian message of salvation to non-Jews. This took place in Syria, near the city of Damascus, in about 35 A.D.

Paul devoted his whole life to his calling. For a quarter of a century he travelled around the eastern Mediterranean, founded several churches and kept in contact with them by means of his letters. In his work he attracted both supporters and opponents.

Paul's Opponents

All his life Paul was a controversial figure who sailed from one conflict to another. His letters are full of polemic against his opponents. Again and again he had to defend his vision and status as an apostle.

Paul's point of departure was not the best possible. Unlike Peter, James and John, the leaders of the Jerusalem church, he had not known Jesus during his lifetime. He had joined the movement of the followers of Jesus as an outsider, even a former enemy and opponent. The authorization of his work rested solely on the vision he had seen, where the risen Jesus had called him to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

Paul's bitterest opponents came from the conservative wing of the church. To them the Law of Moses was still the cornerstone of life, and they wanted non-Jewish Christians too to hold fast to its ordinances, such as circumcision, the dietary rules and the demands of ritual purity. This Paul opposed, for reasons which were partly practical but above all matters of principle.

One practical reason was that many Gentiles who were otherwise open to Paul's preaching were alienated by Jewish customs, particularly circumcision. This was in danger of becoming an obstacle to the advance of Paul's work. The matter of principle was that Paul himself had made a volte-face in his life, from being a person entirely dedicated to the Law to one entirely dedicated to Christ. This volte-face could not easily be revoked.

Opposed to each other were two different ways of understanding the meaning of the Jewish Holy Scriptures. To those Jewish Christians who emphasized the importance of keeping the Law, the Bible was the God-given instrument of sanctification. It told how the people of God should live so that life would be secure, good and blessed. Seen from this point of view the idea of a life in line with the will of God outside the Law was contradictory. For Paul the Bible was above all a collection of God's promises, which had begun to be fulfilled with the resurrection of Jesus. These promises applied to anyone who accepted the message of the gospel, irrespective of whether he was circumcised or whether he lived in accordance with the ordinances of the Law or not. An attempt was made to reconcile these opposing views at the so-called Apostolic Council.

The Apostolic Council

The 'Apostolic Council' or the 'Council of Jerusalem' was held in Jerusalem, probably in 48 A.D. The most reliable source concerning this meeting is Paul's account of the events in Gal. 21-10. The council is also described in Acts chapter 15 - but in a much milder tone.

At the Apostolic Council representatives of two different types of Christianity met. One party comprised the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians of Palestine, who were faithful to the Law of Moses. At least at first they were not actively engaged in mission to the Gentiles but awaited the return of Jesus in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion. Their spiritual and political centre was Jerusalem and their respected leaders were called 'the pillars of Jerusalem' (Gal. 2:9), that is, James, Peter and John. It was these revered figures that the other party came to meet.

The other party represented Hellenistic Christians whose centre was Antioch. Their community was comprised mainly of uncircumcised Gentile Christians. They did not think that the commands of the Law of Moses were binding on Christians. They spoke Greek and were very active in mission throughout the Greek-speaking world. The representatives of this community at the council were Paul and Barnabas. In addition, Paul mentions that he brought along another member of his church, Titus. Paul and Barnabas were Jews by birth but Titus was not.

The initiative for convening the meeting had come from the Antiochene side. Some Jewish Christians had begun to teach Gentile Christians that they must allow themselves to be circumcised and otherwise submit to the ordinances of the Law of Moses. Such things had caused unrest in the Hellenistic churches and put difficulties in the way of the missionary work of the Christians of Antioch. Now the Antiochenes hoped that they would have the opportunity to sort out matters with the 'Jerusalem pillars', because they represented the supreme authority for their opponents.

The Antiochene delegation was successful in its objective: Peter, John and James recognized the independence of the Hellenistic churches and their right to decide for themselves on their attitude to the Law. It was a question of division of labour between two equal missionary tasks; as Paul expressed it,

"They saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews." (Gal. 2:7-9)
Paul and Barnabas, for their part, promised to show loyalty towards the Christians of Jerusalem by remembering them in the prayers of their churches and by raising a collection for them. Organizing this collection later became a central part of Paul's missionary work. The final document of the Apostolic Council was considered a success. Nevertheless it did not succeed in preventing conflicts. A very significant conflict took place in Antioch soon after the Apostolic Council.

The Conflict in Antioch

The Apostolic Council held in 48 A.D. was intended to prevent conflicts between Jewish Christians and Hellenistic Christians. This end was not, however, quite achieved.

One significant conflict occurred soon after the Apostolic Council, when the Apostle Peter arrived in Antioch on a visit from Jerusalem. At the beginning of his visit he shared in meals with Gentile Christians. Thus he showed a liberal attitude towards the purity code of the Law of Moses in accordance with the spirit of the Apostolic Council. But, as the Apostle Paul describes the matter,

"When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray." (Gal. 2:11-13.)
It may be that Barnabas and Peter were only trying to be flexible and make conciliatory gestures in both directions. At the Apostolic Council it was only agreed that Gentile Christians were not required to keep the Law. No one had forbidden Jewish Christians to stay within the Law if they considered it necessary. In Paul's opinion, such behaviour was, however, a sign of betrayal: it showed that Gentile Christians were not considered members of the same community of faith without conditions. This was an insult, and Paul responded in the same manner he attacked Peter publicly and - rather tactlessly - informed those from whom Peter had tried to conceal the matter, that he had eaten with Gentiles:
"When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" (Gal. 2:14.)
In Antioch Paul finally lost the battle (if there had been a different result, he would probably have informed the Galatian Christians). In any case his partnership with Barnabas came to an end. He left Antioch and began missionary work elsewhere. At the same time his attitude to the Law became even more radical. He began to think that Christians who observed the Law were in fact rejecting Christ, in whom the Law was fulfilled in quite a new way. The Law had become a curse, an obstacle to new spiritual life.

Gnostic Christianity

The message of the Jesus movement gave birth to reinterpretations which were entirely rejected by the mainstream movement. The most significant of these was Gnostic Christianity.

Gnosticism was a philosophical and religious world-view which absorbed influences from Judaism, Hellenistic culture and Christianity. It originated in the first century outside the Christian churches, but it soon extended its influence to the church. In the second century it competed with mainstream Christianity for the position of the true interpreter of Christianity.

The Gnostics taught an antithesis between the spiritual and material worlds and the importance of saving knowledge (Greek gnosis). According to the Gnostic interpretation of Christianity, Jesus brought men and women knowledge of the divine origin of humankind.

In 1945 an extensive collection of Gnostic literature was discovered in the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt, including a complete Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas. In the light of the new source material Gnosticism seems to have been a more diverse phenomenon than was previously thought.

For further information about this subject see

The Nag Hammadi Manuscript Finds
Summary; original © Risto Uro/Kirjapaja 1997.

In 1945 three Egyptian farmers discovered near the village of Nag Hammadi a sealed jar containing one of the most important manuscript finds of the century for the study of early Christianity. These manuscripts contained fifty Coptic writings which provided scholars with new information on the thought and life of Gnostic groups.

The greatest sensation of Nag Hammadi was a complete Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas, of which only a few short extracts were previously known. This was an extensive collection of the sayings of Jesus, originally written in Greek.

The Gospel of Thomas was published for the first time in 1959. Some scholars believe that it contains information about Jesus that is independent of the New Testament Gospels. Others regard it as a later Gnostic interpretation of the New Testament Gospels.

For further information about this subject see

  • Nag Hammadi Codices (,
  • Noncanonical homepage (

  • back to the top
    main page