Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Christians have felt enjoined to live as Jesus lived. However, who was Jesus, and how does one go about living as he did? He is, says Pelikan, the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels, which are largely drawn from an oral tradition among those who knew Jesus during his life. The oral tradition among synagogues and early churches therefore predated not only the Gospels but also the epistles of Saint Paul.

On some issues, the New Testament sources appear to have fostered conflicting answers so that succeeding centuries took opposing sides of an issue. For example, Pelikan notes that the role initially attributed to Jesus was that of a first century rabbi bringing Jews a new law. Pelikan suggests that the image of Jesus as rabbi foreshadowed the controversy between Peter and Paul—the former as leader of the early Christian Jewish sect, the latter as leader of a church independent of Judaism. The differences between Peter and Paul evolved into the tension between Catholicism (traceable to Peter as the first pope) and Protestantism (traceable to Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul’s epistles).

In addition, Christians have pondered the relationship between Christians and Jews. Are they of allied, or opposing, religions? Did Christianity grow out of Messianic Judaism, or were the Jews “Christ killers” because they gave Jesus up to the Romans for crucifixion? This is not idle speculation, but an ethical issue of great consequence, the answer to which can profoundly influence Christian behavior toward non-Christians. Pelikan was moved to ponder whether anti-Semitism would have been less widespread if Christians paying tribute to Mary as the Mother of God had also perceived her, and artists had created her image, as a Jewish maiden, “the new Miriam.”

Actually, Jesus’ teachings went far beyond traditional rabbinical precepts. His immediate followers believed the new...

(The entire section is 778 words.)