Please write a three-page summary on Chapter 1 of Christianity: An introduction (Required Textbook: McGrath, Alister E., Christianity: An Introduction. 3rd ed.; Oxford: Blackwell, 2015.). Minimum 800 words (400 words summary, 400 words reflection)
Please do not use direct quotation of the book.
*References should follow the APA 6th or APA 7th edition
Christianity: An Introduction, Third Edition. Alister E. McGrath.
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Christianity is rooted in the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, often also referred to as
“Jesus Christ.” Christianity is not simply the body of teachings that derive from Jesus of
Nazareth – ideas that could be dissociated from the person and history of their originator.
Marxism, for example, is essentially a system of ideas grounded in the writings of Karl Marx
(1818–1883). But Marx himself is not part of Marxism. At a very early stage, however, the
identity of Jesus became part of the Christian proclamation. The Christian faith is thus not
merely about emulating or adopting the faith of Jesus of Nazareth; it is also about placing
faith in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Significance of Jesus of Nazareth for Christianity
As we have already noted, the figure of Jesus of Nazareth is central to Christianity.
Christianity is not a set of self-contained and freestanding ideas; it represents a sustained
response to the questions raised by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Before we begin to explore the historical background to Jesus and the way in which the
Christian tradition understands his identity, we need to consider his place within
Christianity. To begin with, we shall consider the ways in which Christians refer to the
central figure of their faith. We have already used the name “Jesus of Nazareth”; but what of
the related name, “Jesus Christ”? Let’s look at the latter in more detail.
The name “Jesus Christ” is deeply rooted in the history and aspirations of the people of
Israel. The word “Jesus” (Hebrew Yeshua) literally means “God saves” – or, to be more pre-
cise, “the God of Israel saves.” The word “Christ” is really a title, so that the name “Jesus
Christ” is better understood as “Jesus who is the Christ.” As a derivative of the verb “to
anoint” (chriō), the word “Christ” is the Greek version of the Hebrew term “Messiah,” which
Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins
4 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity
refers to an individual singled out or raised up by God for some special purpose (p. 23).
As we shall see, this captured the early Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the
culmination and fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of Israel.
Initially, since so many of the first Christians were Jews, the question of Christianity’s
relationship with Israel was seen as being of major significance. What was the relation of
their old religion to their new faith? Yet, as time passed, this matter became less important.
Within a generation, the Christian church came to be dominated by “Gentiles” – that is,
people who were not Jews – to whom the term “Messiah” meant little – if anything. The
name “Jesus Christ” seems to have been understood simply as a name. As a result, even in
the New Testament itself, the word “Christ” came to be used as an alternative way of referring
to Jesus of Nazareth.
This habit of speaking persists today. In contemporary Christianity, “Jesus” is often seen
as a familiar, intimate form of address, often used in personal devotion and prayer, whereas
“Christ” is more formal, often being used in public worship.
As we have noted, Christianity is an historical religion, which came into being in response
to a specific set of events, which center upon Jesus of Nazareth and to which Christian the-
ology is obliged to return in the course of its speculation and reflection. Yet the importance
of Jesus far exceeds his historical significance. For Christians, Jesus is more than the founder
of their faith or the originator of Christianity: he is the one who makes God known, who
makes salvation possible, and who models the new life with God that results from faith.
To set this out more formally:
1 Jesus tells and shows what God is like;
2 Jesus makes a new relationship with God possible;
3 Jesus himself lives out a God-focused life, acting as a model of the life of faith.
In what follows we shall explore each of these ideas briefly; then we shall consider them
further later in this volume.
First, Christianity holds that Jesus of Nazareth reveals both the will and the face of God.
The New Testament sets out the idea that God, who is invisible, is in some way made known
or made visible through Jesus. Jesus does not simply reveal what God is like, or what God
expects of believers. Rather he enables us to see God. This point is made repeatedly in the
New Testament – for example in statements like this: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the
Father” (John 14: 9). God the Father is here understood to speak and act in the Son. God is
revealed through, in, and by Jesus. To have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father.
This point is developed further in the doctrine of the incarnation – the characteristically
Christian idea that God entered into the world of time and space in the person of Jesus of
Nazareth. The doctrine of the incarnation provides a basis for the distinctively Christian
belief that Jesus opens a “window into God.” It also underlies the practice, especially
associated with the Orthodox church, of using icons in worship and personal devotion. The
doctrine of the incarnation affirms that Jesus “fleshes out” what God is like.
In the second place, Jesus is understood to be the ground of salvation. One of the more
significant titles used in the New Testament to refer to Jesus is “Savior.” Jesus is the “Savior,
who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2: 11). According to the New Testament, Jesus saves his
Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity 5
people from their sins (Matthew 1: 21); in his name alone is there salvation (Acts 4: 12); and
he is the “author of their salvation” (Hebrews 2: 10). One of the earliest symbols of faith used
by Christians was a fish. The use of this symbol may reflect the fact that the first disciples
were fishermen. Yet this is not the main reason for adopting the symbol. The five Greek
letters spelling out the word “fish” in Greek (I-CH-TH-U-S) are an acronym of the Christian
creedal slogan “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” (see p. 258).
Third, Jesus is understood to disclose the contours of the redeemed life. Jesus of Nazareth
shows us both what God is like and what God wants from us. Jesus is not simply the basis
of the life of faith; he is also the model for that life. Traditionally, this was interpreted ethi-
cally in terms of exercising self-denial and showing self-giving love. Yet this feature is also
important spiritually – for example, in the Christian use of the “Lord’s Prayer,” a prayer also
used by Jesus of Nazareth. The way in which Jesus prayed is seen as an example for the way
in which Christians ought to pray, in much the same way as the moral example of Jesus is
seen as normative for Christian ethics.
The Sources of Our Knowledge about Jesus of Nazareth
Christianity is an historical religion, which came into being in response to a specific set of
events – above all, the history of Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that Jesus of Nazareth is an historical
figure raises two fundamental questions, which remain integral to Christian reflection.
First, how does the story of Jesus of Nazareth fit into his historical context – namely that of
first-century Judaism? And, second, what documentary sources do we possess for our
knowledge of Jesus and its perceived significance?
We shall consider both these questions in the present chapter.
Christianity began as a reform movement within the context of Judaism, which gradually
clarified its identity as it grew and began to take definite shape in the world of the first-
century Roman Empire. There are no historical grounds for believing that the term
“Christian” originated from Jesus of Nazareth himself. Early Christians tended to refer to
each other as “disciples” or “saints,” as the letters of the New Testament make clear. Yet
others used alternative names to refer to this new movement. The New Testament suggests
that the term “Christians” (Greek Christianoi) was first used by outsiders, to refer to the
followers of Jesus of Nazareth. “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called
‘Christians’” (Acts 17: 26). It was a term imposed upon them, not chosen by them. Yet it
seems to have caught on.
However, we must be careful not to assume that the use of the single term “Christian”
implies that this new religious movement was uniform and well organized. As we shall see,
the early history of Christianity suggests that it was quite diverse, without well-defined
authority structures or carefully formulated sets of beliefs. These began to crystallize during
the first centuries of Christian history and became increasingly important in the fourth,
when Christianity became a legal religion within the Roman empire.
Traditionally, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is dated to the opening of the Christian era,
his death being dated to some point around ad 30–33. Yet virtually nothing is known of
Jesus of Nazareth from sources outside the New Testament. The New Testament itself
6 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity
provides two groups of quite distinct sources of information about Jesus: the four gospels
and the letters. Although parallels are not exact, there are clear similarities between the
gospels and the classical “lives” written by leading Roman historians of the age – such as
Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars (written in ad 121).
The gospels mingle historical recollection with theological thought, reflecting both on
the identity and on the significance of Jesus of Nazareth. The four gospels have their own
distinct identities and concerns. For example, the gospel of Matthew seems especially
concerned with establishing the significance of Jesus for a Jewish readership, whereas the
gospel of Luke seems more concerned with explaining his importance to a Greek-speaking
community. Establishing the identity of Jesus is just as important as recording what he said
and did. The gospel writers can be thought of as trying to locate Jesus of Nazareth on a map,
so that his relationship with humanity, history, and God may be understood and appreciated.
This leads them to focus on three particular themes:
● What Jesus taught, particularly the celebrated “parables of the Kingdom.” The teaching
of Jesus was seen as important in helping believers to live out an authentic Christian life,
which was a central theme of Christian discipleship – most notably in relation to culti-
vating attitudes of humility toward others and obedience toward God.
● What Jesus did – especially his ministry of healing, which was seen as important in
establishing his identity, but also in shaping the values of the Christian community
itself. For example, most medieval monasteries founded hospitals as a means of
continuing Christ’s ministry in this respect.
● What was said about Jesus by those who witnessed his teaching and actions. The gospel
of Luke, for example, records Simeon’s declaration that the infant Jesus was the
“consolation of Israel,” as well as the Roman centurion’s assertion that Jesus was innocent
of the charges brought against him. These can be seen as constituting public recognition
of the identity of Jesus.
The letters of the New Testament – sometimes still referred to as “epistles” (Greek epistolē,
plural epistolai) – are addressed to individuals and churches and often focus on issues of
conduct and belief. These letters are important in helping us grasp the emerging under-
standings of the significance of Jesus of Nazareth within the Christian community. The
example of Jesus is regularly invoked to emphasize the importance of imitating his attitudes –
for example, treating others better than yourself (Philippians 2). Although the letters make
virtually no direct reference to the teachings of Jesus, certain patterns of behavior are clearly
regarded as being grounded in those teachings – such as humility, or a willingness to accept
The letters also emphasize the importance of certain patterns of behavior – for example
repeating the actions of the Last Supper, using bread and wine as a way of recalling and
celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ (pp. 112–117). The sacraments of both
baptism and the eucharist are clearly anticipated in the New Testament and are traced back
to the ministry of Jesus himself.
Yet, perhaps more importantly, the letters also reveal understandings of the identity and
significance of Jesus of Nazareth that were becoming characteristic of early Christian
Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity 7
communities. The most important of the themes associated to such understandings are the
● Jesus of Nazareth is understood to be the means by which the invisible God can be
known and seen. Jesus is the “image” (Greek eikōn) “of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:
15), or the “exact representation” (Greek charaktēr) of God (Hebrews 1: 3).
● Jesus is the one who makes salvation possible and whose life reflects the themes
characteristic of redeemed human existence. The use of the term “savior” (Greek sōtēr)
is highly significant in this respect.
● The core Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is seen as a vindication
of his innocence, a confirmation of his divine identity, and the grounds of hope for
believers. Through faith, believers are understood to be united with Christ and sharing
in his sufferings at present, while also sharing in the hope of his resurrection.
Each of these themes would be further developed as the Christian community reflected on
their significance and on their relevance for the life and thought of believers. We shall
explore some of these more developed ideas about Jesus in a later chapter, setting out the
shape of Christian beliefs.
Jesus of Nazareth in His Jewish Context
From the outset, Christianity saw itself as continuous with Judaism. Christians were clear
that the God whom they followed and worshipped was the same God worshipped by the
Israelite Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The New Testament sees the great hope of
the coming of a “Messiah” to the people of Israel as having been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.
As we saw earlier (p. 3), the New Testament use of the title “Christ” (the Greek translation
of the Hebrew word “Messiah”) reflects this belief.
There seems to have been a general consensus within Judaism that the Messiah would be
like a new king David, opening up a new era in Israel’s history. While Israel looked forward
to the coming of a messianic age, different groups understood this in diverging ways. The
Jewish desert community at Qumran thought of the Messiah primarily in priestly terms,
whereas others had more political expectations. Yet, despite these differences, the hope of
the coming of a “messianic age” seems to have been widespread in early first-century
Judaism and is echoed at points in the gospel’s accounts of the ministry of Jesus.
During the first phase of its development, Christianity existed alongside (or even within)
Judaism. Christians insisted that the God who was known and encountered by the great
heroes of faith of Israel – such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses – was the same God
who was more fully and clearly revealed in Jesus. It was therefore of importance to the early
Christians to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of the Christian faith,
brought the great messianic hopes of Judaism to fulfillment.
The continuity between Judaism and Christianity is obvious at many points. Judaism
placed particular emphasis on the Law (Hebrew Torah), through which the will of God was
made known in the form of commands, and on the Prophets, who made known the will of
8 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity
God in certain definite historical situations. The New Testament gospels report that Jesus of
Nazareth emphasized that he had “not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill
them” (Matthew 5: 17).
The same point is made by Paul in his New Testament letters. Jesus is “the goal of the
Law” (Romans 10: 4, using the Greek word telos, which means “end,” “goal,” or “objective”).
Paul also stresses the continuity between the faith of Abraham and that of Christians
(Romans 4: 1–25). The letter to the Hebrews points out the continuity of relationship both
between Moses and Jesus (Hebrews 3: 1–6) and between Christians and the great figures of
faith of ancient Israel (Hebrews 11: 1–12: 2).
The New Testament makes it clear that Christianity is to be seen as being continuous
with Judaism and as bringing to completion what Judaism was pointing toward. This has
several major consequences, of which the following are the most important. First, both
Christians and Jews regard more or less the same collection of writings – known by Jews as
“Law, Prophets, and Writings” and by Christians as “the Old Testament” – as having
religious authority. Although some more radical thinkers within Christianity – such as the
second-century writer Marcion of Sinope – argued for the breaking of any historical or
theological link with Judaism, the main line within the Christian movement both affirmed
and valued the link between the Christian church and Israel. A body of writings that Jews
regard as complete in itself is seen by Christians as pointing forward to something that will
bring it to completion. Although Christians and Jews both regard the same set of texts as
important, they use different names to refer to them and interpret them in different ways.
We shall consider this point further when we look at the Christian Bible.
Second, New Testament writers often laid emphasis on the manner in which Old
Testament prophecies were understood to be fulfilled or realized in the life and death of
Jesus Christ. By doing this, they drew attention to two important beliefs: that Christianity is
continuous with Judaism; and that Christianity brings Judaism to its true fulfillment. This
is particularly important for some early Christian writings – such as Paul’s letters and the
gospel of Matthew – which often seem to be particularly concerned with exploring the
importance of Christianity for Jews. For example, the gospel of Matthew notes at twelve
points how events in the life of Jesus can be seen as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies.
This continuity between Christianity and Judaism helps us understand some aspects of
early Christian history. The New Testament suggests that at least some Christians initially
continued to worship in Jewish synagogues, before controversy made this problematic. The
letters of Paul help us understand at least some of the issues lying behind those controversies.
Two questions were of particular importance and were keenly debated in the first century.
First, there was a debate about whether Christian converts should be required to be
circumcised. Those who emphasized the continuity between Christianity and Judaism
believed they should be. Yet the view that ultimately prevailed was that Christians were no
longer subject to the cultic laws of Judaism – such as the requirement to be circumcised or
to observe strict dietary laws.
Second, there was the question of whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity were to be
treated as Jews. Those who emphasized the continuity between Judaism and Christianity
argued that Gentile believers should be treated as if they had become Jews – and hence they
Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity 9
would be subject to Jewish religious observances and rituals, such as the requirement for
males to be circumcised. For this reason, a group within early Christianity demanded the
circumcision of male Gentile converts.
Yet the majority, including Paul, took a very different position. To be a Christian was not
about reinforcing a Jewish ethnic or cultural identity, but about entering a new way of living
and thinking, which was open to everyone. By the late first century Christians largely saw
themselves as a new religious movement, originating within Judaism but not limited by its
cultic and ethnic traditions.
The Gospels and Jesus of Nazareth
Our primary sources for the life of Jesus of Nazareth are the four gospels of the New
Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The first three of these gospels are often
referred to as “the Synoptic Gospels,” in that each lays out a summary (Greek sunopsis) of
the activities and teachings of Jesus. There is little historical information about Jesus
available from any other source. Thus the great Roman historians of this age provide little
on this score, although they are important sources for our understanding of the way in
which Jesus was received within early Christianity.
It is easy to understand this lack of interest in Jesus in the writings of Roman historians.
They had relatively little time for events that took place in the backwaters of their empire,
such as the distant and unimportant province of Judaea. Their histories focused on Rome
itself and on the leading figures and events that shaped its destiny.
Three Roman historians make reference to Jesus in their writings: Pliny the Younger,
writing around ad 111 to the Emperor Trajan about the rapid spread of Christianity in Asia
Minor; Tacitus, who wrote around ad 115 concerning the events of ad 64, when Nero made
the Christians scapegoats for the burning of Rome; and Suetonius, writing around ad 120
about certain events during the reign of Emperor Claudius. Suetonius refers to a certain
“Chrestus” who was behind riotings at Rome. “Christus” was still an unfamiliar name to
Romans at this stage, whereas “Chrestus” was a common name for slaves at this time (the
Greek adjective chrēstos meant “useful”).
Four points emerge from the brief comments of these three historians:
1 Jesus had been condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judaea, during the
reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Tacitus). Pilate was procurator (governor) of
Judaea from ad 26 to ad 36, while Tiberius reigned from ad 14 to ad 37. The traditional
date for the crucifixion is some time around ad 30–33.
2 By the time of Nero’s reign, Jesus had attracted sufficient followers in Rome for Nero to
make them a suitable scapegoat for the burning of Rome. These followers were named
3 “Chrestus” was the founder of a distinctive group within Judaism (Suetonius).
4 By ad 112, Christians were worshipping Jesus of Nazareth “as if he were a god,” aban-
doning the worship of the Roman emperor to do so (Pliny).
10 Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity
The main sources for the life of Jesus of Nazareth are thus the four gospels. Each of
these texts presents related, though distinct, accounts of the ministry of Jesus. Matthew’s
gospel, for example, brings out the importance of Jesus for the Jewish people and is
particularly concerned to explore the way in which Jesus brings the expectations of
Israel to their proper fulfillment. Mark’s gospel takes the form of a rapidly paced nar-
rative, often leaving readers breathless as they are led from one event to another. Luke’s
gospel has a particular interest in bringing out the importance of Jesus for non-Jewish
readers. John’s gospel is more reflective in its approach, characterized by a distinctive
emphasis on the way in which the coming of Jesus brings eternal life to those who
believe in him.
The gospels cannot really be thought of as biographies of Jesus in the modern sense of
the term, although they unquestionably provide much helpful biographical information.
They do not present us with a full account of the life of Jesus. Mark’s gospel, for example,
focuses on a few years of Jesus’ life, which are characterized by his intensive public
ministry and end in his crucifixion and resurrection. Matthew and Luke both give brief
accounts of the birth and childhood of Jesus before resuming their narratives of his
It is clear that the gospels weave together several sources to build up their overall por-
trayal of the identity and significance of Jesus. Thus Mark’s gospel draws on material that is
traditionally attributed to Peter, Jesus’ leading disciple. Furthermore, the gospels are more
concerned with bringing out the significance of the life of Jesus than with documenting it
in full detail. Nevertheless, they present us with a portrait of Jesus that mingles history and
theology to tell us who Jesus is – not simply in terms of his historical identity, but in terms
of his continuing importance for the world.
We will follow the account of the birth and early ministry of Jesus of Nazareth as laid out
in the Synoptic Gospels. Space does not allow a detailed interaction with the historical,
theological, and cultural issues raised by these accounts. In what follows we shall set out the
basic narratives and reflect on their general significance.
The Birth of Jesus of Nazareth
Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus begins with Jesus’ appearance as an adult in Galilee;
it makes no reference to his birth or childhood. Matthew and Luke provide different yet
complementary accounts, which narrate the birth of Jesus and have had a major impact on
Christian art (and subsequently on traditional Christmas cards and carols). Matthew’s
account is related from the standpoint of Joseph, and Luke’s from that of Mary. Neither the
day nor the year of Jesus’ birth are known for certain. Non-Christians often assume that
Christians believe that Jesus was born on December 25. In fact Christians have chosen to
celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. December 25 is the date fixed for the celebra-
tion of the birth of Jesus, not the date of his birth itself.
Early Christian writers suggested a variety of dates for the celebration of Jesus’ birth –
for example, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) advocated May 20. By the fourth
Jesus of Nazareth and the Origins of Christianity 11
century the date of December 25 had been chosen,
possibly to take advantage of a traditional Roman
holiday associated with this date. For Christians,
the precise date of the birth of Jesus is actually
something of a non-issue. What really matters is
that he was born as a human being and entered into
The traditional Christmas story has become
somewhat stylized over the years. For example,
most traditional versions of the story tell of the
“three wise men” and of Jesus “being born in a
stable.” In fact the New Testament relates that the
wise men brought three gifts to Jesus; many have
simply assumed that, as there were three gifts, there
must have been three wise men. Similarly, we are
told that Jesus was born in a manger; many have
assumed that, since mangers are kept in stables,
Jesus must have been born in a stable.
The birthplace of Jesus is identified as Bethlehem,
a minor town in the region of Judaea, not far from
Jerusalem. Its significance lies in its associations
with King David, given particular emphasis by the
Prophet Micah. Writing in the eighth century before
Christ, Micah declared that a future ruler of Israel
would emerge from Bethlehem (Micah 5: 2). This
expectation is noted in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew
2: 5–6), where it is presented as one of many indica-
tions that the circumstances of the birth and early
ministry of Jesus represent a fulfillment of Israelite
prophecies and hopes.
Luke stresses the humility and lowliness of the cir-
cumstances of the birth of Jesus. For example, he
notes that Jesus was placed in a manger (normally
used for feeding animals), and that the first people to
visit him were shepherds. Although the force of the
point is easily lost, it needs to be remembered that
shepherds were widely regarded as socially and reli-
giously inferior people in Jewish society, on account
of their nomadic lifestyle.
Both Matthew and Luke stress the importance of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In later
Christian thought, Mary would become a focus for personal devotion, on account of her
obedience and humility. She often had a particular appeal to women, who felt marginal-
ized by the strongly masculine ethos of …