Built on a Pun

James Joyce once remarked that the Christian church was built on a pun. He was referring to the exchange between Jesus and the apostle Peter in which Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” The name Peter, or petros in the original Greek of the New Testament, means “little rock.” However, as Peter later acknowledged, Jesus was not suggesting that Peter was the rock on which he would build his church but rather that Christ himself was the “stone that the builders rejected.”

You can make the case that neither Peter nor even Jesus were the true founders of the Christian Church. According to this view, the actual founder was a Pharisee known as Saul of Tarsus, who was not one the original apostles and had never known Jesus. Indeed, until his famous conversion on the road to Damascus, he had been a notorious persecutor of Christians. Saul, whom we now know as St. Paul, was responsible for bringing the Christian message to the Gentile world. Had he not done so, Christianity might well have remained an obscure Jewish sect led by St. Peter in Jerusalem.

The message that St. Paul brought to the Gentile world was not the same gospel that Jesus preached during his lifetime. Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom. Paul preached salvation through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a Pharisee, he had always believed that sins could only be atoned through the shedding of blood. The main difference now was that he thought atonement came through the shedding of Jesus’ blood. Did Jesus himself actually believe this? If so, he made no mention of it during his public ministry. At one point he even quoted the prophet Hosea in saying, “Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'“ It’s true that Jesus made highly symbolic statements at the Last Supper that could be interpreted as supporting his sacrificial death. However, there is no explicit biblical basis for the notion that God demanded the sacrifice of his own son to atone for the sins of the world. This doctrine was not really formalized until more than 1,000 years after Jesus’ death.

If Jesus didn’t die for our sins, why did he die? Clearly, Jesus’ proclamation that the kingdom of God was at hand was viewed as a threat both by the local religious authorities and by their Roman overseers. The Romans, for good reason, were always on guard against potential insurrectionists. The chief priests and elders in Jerusalem played upon this in pressuring Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, to have Jesus put to death. They felt no less threatened themselves, since once God’s kingdom arrived, there presumably would be no further need of chief priests and elders.

As it happened, Pontius Pilate was not entirely persuaded that Jesus should be put to death; indeed, Pilate’s wife had reported bad dreams about this man and urged her husband to have nothing to do with him. Pilate asked Jesus if he were the king of the Jews, as charged. Jesus told him, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Many Christians assume he must have been talking about the next world. However, Jesus most probably meant that his kingdom was simply not of Pilate’s world, the realm of power and intrigue. Everything Jesus said and did bore witness to the truth of what he had proclaimed at the outset, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”

The Jews finally prevailed upon Pilate to condemn Jesus by telling him, "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend.” The church founded in Jesus’ name soon transplanted God’s kingdom from this world to the next. The religion they practiced was based on sacrificial rites, much like the religion of the chief priests and elders. In time the church became the established religion of the Roman Empire, and its simple communal structure was reorganized along hierarchical lines, according to the Roman administrative model. The irony is that God’s kingdom may not have been of Pilate’s world, but the church now was.

Matthew 16:18
1 Peter 2:4-9
Matthew 9:13
John 18:36
John 19:12

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