Chapter 5: The People of God

The Founder of Christianity
by C. H. Dodd

Chapter 5: The People of God

Any student of the Græco-Roman world at the beginning of our era who tries to penetrate beneath the surface of the political, economic and military history of the period and discern what was going on in the minds of men, becomes aware of a widespread expectation of a turn for the better in human affairs, even the dawn of a golden age, after the violent convulsions which had disturbed society for a century or more. There was something of a religious faith about it. It invoked oracles and prophecies, ancient and modern. It was often associated with the figure of a "savior," or deliverer -- a great man, perhaps a superman with something of divinity about him, if indeed he was not a god. Millions of the subjects of Rome saw the emperor himself as the divine deliverer. A Roman poet hailed Augustus as praesens divus, a "present deity." 1 The emperor disposed of powers which seemed nothing short of miraculous to the subject peoples of the eastern provinces, who had lived for two or three generations in a disintegrating society. He had given unity to a distracted world. He could guarantee peace, safety from outward attacks, and a measure of social security internally. At the least he could provide everybody with "bread and circuses." The emotion which expressed itself in the worship of the emperor as a very god on earth was genuine. He was the savior, the "restorer of the world" (restitutor orbis). It was not difficult for propagandists of the empire to represent it as trembling on the verge of a millennium. Under Augustus it really did seem to many as if a golden age might be round the corner. By the time of Tiberius (to whose reign the events of the gospel history belong), the gilt was tarnished.

The Jews were not greatly impressed by imperial claims of this sort. But they shared in the general hope of a good time coming. Certainly they had their quest for "present deity." In the distant past, they believed, the great God had revealed himself to Moses and the prophets; he had acted in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and the restoration after the Babylonian conquest. There was a deep longing that at this time of need, when Israel was again oppressed, he should once again manifest himself in appropriate action, and there was a varying degree of confidence that he would do so.

As the secular hope of a golden age had its prophecies and oracles, so the Judaism of this period produced that curious literature known as "apocalyptic." It professed to unveil the future -- the near future -- in visions, usually fantastic enough, and always in the sense of some glorious destiny impending for the chosen race. Inevitably, among large sections of the population the picture took on colors similar to those of the secular golden age. The place of the divine emperor, victorious in war, beneficent in peace, was taken by the ideal figure of the "Son of David," a wise and powerful king of the old legitimate line. He would be the Caesar of a Jewish empire no less universal than the Roman; though it would be fair to say that the program drawn up for the "Son of David" in literature not far in date from the time of Jesus has more about justice and moral reformation than about bread and circuses. To this ideal figure was often given the title "Messiah." The term was suggestive rather than precise in meaning. In itself it meant no more than a person "anointed," or consecrated, to an office of special solemnity; but always it was an office bound up with the peculiar status of Israel as God’s own people. In historical retrospect, David, the idealized founder of the Israelite monarchy, was "the Lord’s Anointed" (Messiah), par excellence, and the coming deliverer was to be in some sort a second David. Such seems to have been the most popular form of the "messianic" idea. Vis-à-vis Rome it spelt rebellion, and many were ready to implement it in that sense.

This militant "messianism," however, was not the only form taken by the national hope. The ancient synagogue prayer, "Bring back our judges as at the first, and our rulers as aforetime, and be thou king over us, O Lord, thou alone," combined the sober plea of a subject people for the recovery of independence with a genuinely religious aspiration. God was the rightful King of Israel; every Jew was taught that; but the effective reign of God was something hoped for rather than experienced. And so again the prayer was offered in the synagogue liturgy: "May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel." What the establishment of the "kingdom of God" might in practice mean was something about which minds might differ because of their different background, education and discernment. According to such differences various schools and parties had their several programs. But behind all the programs there remained the august idea of God himself coming to reign as sovereign, the living God, present and powerful, a factor to be reckoned with. This idea was waiting to be revived.

Then Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming, "The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you!" It is not surprising that some understood him to be speaking of the kingdom of the Son of David with its revolutionary implications. The misunderstanding dogged his mission to the end, until he was put to death by the Romans as "king of the Jews." A misunderstanding it was, and one of fatal consequence. Yet a misunderstanding may be a truth distorted by a mere shift of level or perspective. So it was here. Jesus held aloof from all the party programs; he cut through them all to the root idea of "present deity" -- God in all his power and majesty confronting individual men and women and demanding response; and to this idea he gave fresh clarity and strength, as we have seen. But it would be wrong to suppose that he so "spiritualized" the idea of the kingdom of God as to make it relevant only to the inner life of the individual. Aloof in one sense, he was nevertheless engaged with the contemporary life of his own nation. When he welcomed the "repentance" of an unpopular tax-collector, he spoke of him as a "son of Abraham." 2 When he defied censure to treat a crippled woman on the Sabbath, she was a "daughter of Abraham." 3 The expressions are revealing. As individuals they were important to him, but they were also members of a people; their plight concerned the historic community to which they, and he, belonged, and their "salvation" (physical or moral) also concerned the well-being of the community as a whole. Jesus spoke in parable of the finding of lost sheep, and emphasized the importance of the single sheep that went astray; but it was to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," 4 he said, that he was sent. It is clear that in speaking of the kingdom of God he was not less aware than any contemporary Jewish teacher of the long tradition that Israel is the people over which God is rightfully king, in and though which his kingdom is to be realized.

This tradition the prophets of the Old Testament had made a part of tile whole Jewish heritage of thought. They insisted that God works in history, and works through a community dedicated to his purpose, a "people of God" or divine commonwealth, Israel was intended to be such a people; that was its raison d’étre. Indeed that was the implication of the name Israel itself as it was now used; it had ceased to have either geographical or political significance after two Israelite monarchies had been quashed some centuries earlier. Henceforward it carried ideal overtones. The Jewish community had been reorganized by the reformers of the fifth century BC. on the understanding that its whole corporate life should be governed by the sacred law which was believed to express the will of God. It was a brave and honest attempt to create a society in which the kingdom of God might be realized. But it had miscarried. The condition of Judaea in the first century was pathological. It was torn with faction; a largely secularized priesthood furthered its own ambitions by subservience to the foreign power; the mass of the people seethed with impotent hatred of Rome. The efforts of good and devoted religious teachers had the effect of widening the breach between the pious and the despised "people of the land." The situation worsened until it issued in the rising of AD. 66, which brought the end of Jewry as a political entity.

Jesus was alive to the danger threatening his people. Neither they nor their leaders, he said, could "interpret the signs of the times," 5 and one has only to read the account of the period by the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus to see how true it was. As the ancient prophets had pointed to a threat from Assyria or Babylon, so in the time of Jesus the Roman peril loomed. On one occasion he was told of a clash in the temple, in which some Galileans had been slaughtered by the Roman soldiery. About the same time, as it happened, one of the towers on the wall of Jerusalem had fallen, with fatal results. His comment was: "Do you imagine that, because these Galileans suffered this fate, they must have been greater sinners than anyone else in Galilee? Or the eighteen men who were killed when the tower fell on them at Siloam -- do you imagine they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? I tell you, they were not; but unless you repent, you will all of you come to the same end," 6

"Unless you repent"; the call to "repentance" was addressed to individuals, certainly, but to individuals as members of a nation which was intended to be a "people of God" but had lost its way. If we ask what overt result Jesus may have hoped for, the answer is not easy, because he issued no program of religious or political reform, any more than he laid down precise regulations for individual behavior. He disclaimed any intention to reform the existing system. It would, he said, be no more sensible than patching a worn-out coat with new cloth. But it may be legitimate to ask, for example, what difference it might have made to the internal situation if those superior persons who "were sure of their own goodness and looked down on everyone else" could have changed their minds, or if the orthodox Jew could have been persuaded to accept the Samaritan as a "neighbor"; what difference to external relations if the pious sectaries of Qumran, feeding their frustrated animosities on fantasies of a holy war against Rome, could have learned that "love your neighbor" does not necessarily mean "hate your enemy," or if the entrenched hierarchy could have been persuaded to make the temple a home of real religion -- and a desegrated home at that, "a house of prayer for all the nations." 7 Such questions are idle except as a help to the imagination, by way of making concrete, in an actual historical situation, the bearing of the principles that Jesus laid down. But he promulgated no program, nor does it appear that he ever contemplated attempting to take over the Jewish establishment as a going concern and reshape it to his mind (as, shall we say, the English reformers of the sixteenth century took over the ecclesiastical establishment). It was not on that level that his mission proceeded.

The immediate prelude to his mission was that of John the Baptist, an enigmatic figure about whom we are told enough to stimulate conjecture, but too little to give much certain knowledge. A few sayings of his, however, preserved in the gospels, are unquestionably authentic. One of them runs as follows: "Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father.’ I tell you that God can make children for Abraham out of these stones here." 8 The implication is obvious: hereditary membership of the chosen people is no passport to membership of the true people of God. To bring the new "Israel" out of the existing system a fresh start must be made, and it must be by a creative act of God. That was John’s view; it is unlikely that Jesus was less radical than he. Indeed only a like radicalism can explain some of his words and actions reported in the gospels.

In this, as in so much else, Jesus stood in succession to the Hebrew prophets, of whom, he said himself, John the Baptist was the last and greatest. Time and again, facing national calamities, the prophets repeat in varying imagery that the true people of God will emerge through his power from apparently final disaster. It will be like a resurrection of dead men’s bones.9 The calamities the nation suffered dramatized, as it were, the just judgment of Almighty God upon their evil courses; but within the judgment lay the mercy of God, with power to create anew; and that was why, beyond all hope, the nation revived. Thus far the prophets. Jesus declared that the supreme crisis was now here. His own generation was caught up in a drama of divine judgment which summed up all the judgments of the past. "This generation will have to answer for the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world." 10 That was how he saw the approaching catastrophe. It was no satisfaction to him to have to announce it. On his last ride to Jerusalem, when the ridge was surmounted and the city came in sight, he is said to have wept as he exclaimed:

If only you had known, on this great day, the way that leads to peace! But no, it is hidden from your sight. For a time will come, when your enemies will set up siege works against you; they will encircle you and hem you in at every point; they will bring you to the ground, you and your children within your walls, and not leave you one stone standing on another, because you did not recognize God’s moment when it came.11

It was in these realistic terms that Jesus saw the plight of his nation. Yet the peril of a clash with Rome only brought to the surface something deeper than any political crisis. They were living through a spiritual crisis, and on the outcome of that crisis depended the future of the people of God in the world. It was a moment of decision and a turning point. In the prophetic interpretation of history, Israel dies to rise again. In terms of the existing situation, the present Jewish establishment is doomed; the true people of God will emerge from its ruins.

The idea finds expression in various metaphors -- seldom, if ever, in blunt prose. Most pregnant is a saying whose precise wording we cannot determine, because it is handed down in such various forms, but which, for that very reason, we may safely conclude to be both authentic and specially significant. Jesus was reported to have said something about the destruction of the temple, and this was made a charge against him. It was clearly an embarrassment to his followers in the tense situation that arose after his death. Mark gives the words thus: "I will throw down this temple, made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands." But, Mark says, the allegation was false; he did not say this. But what did he say? Matthew has the words somewhat differently but he too discredits the report. Luke just drops it out. John, however, states plainly that Jesus did say: "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it again." 12 We must, I think, accept John’s version of the matter, and recognize that the saying is, like so many others, figurative: the temple stands for a way of religion and a community embodying it. The manifest disintegration of the existing system is to be preliminary to the appearance of a new way of religion and a new community to embody it. And yet, it is the same temple, first destroyed, that is to be rebuilt. The new community is still Israel; there is continuity through the discontinuity. It is not a matter of replacement but of resurrection.

We have now, perhaps, some inkling of the purpose underlying the intensive campaign which Jesus conducted among the populace of Galilee and Judaea. His aim was to constitute a community worthy of the name of a people of God, a divine commonwealth, through individual response to God coming in his kingdom. Some of his approaches to individuals we have already noted, and the results. Each such case was an image in miniature of the way in which the new people of God is brought into being, for in each case a man is made new by the power of God released through Jesus and through the "faith" which he evoked. Every such case is also a reinforcement of the call to "repentance," and they are all part and parcel of the great campaign.

Behind it all lies the vision of the all-embracing power and benevolence of the Creator. Especially it is the miracle of growth that sets the pattern. A man sows seed, "it sprouts and grows -- how, he does not know -- the ground produces a crop by itself," and almost before he knows what is happening, ‘harvest time has come." 13 Accordingly, when Jesus sent out messengers to proclaim, as he had himself proclaimed, "The kingdom of God is upon you," they are represented as reapers: "The crop is heavy, but laborers are scarce; you must therefore beg the owner to send laborers to harvest his crop. Be on your way!" 14 To change the metaphor, they are "fishers of men," 15 and fishers with a dragnet,16 which gathers in fish of all kinds, without discrimination. It is not for them to pick and choose. The disciples are recruiting agents for the new people of God, but their function as such is simply to confront men with the reality of God coming in his kingdom, and leave it to them. The response of each individual is voluntary; it is a choice and a decision of his own, before God. Those who accept his kingdom "like a child" enter in, and so by act of God himself, which is especially exhibited in the forgiveness of sins, his people is formed within the old Israel, ready to emerge in due time.

If the new Israel was to be more than an abstraction, it needed to be embodied. No doubt it was a theoretical possibility that a reformed Judaism might have supplied such an embodiment. Indeed, after the fall of Jerusalem the new rabbinic Judaism under the guidance of Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai and his school undertook something of the kind. But, as we have seen, Jesus did not contemplate a reformed Judaism. Yet he recognized the need for some vehicle of the new life which was emerging. There is a hint of this in a parable: "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins and then wine and skins are both lost. Fresh skins for new wine!" 17 The fresh vehicle was in fact beginning to take shape. The disciples of Jesus were called to be more than recruiting agents for the people of God, they were to be its foundation members.

This was most definitely true of the inner group which drew together out of the larger body of those who adhered to the cause of Jesus in a general way. It consisted of men who were wholly committed, and had left all to put themselves at his disposal. The number of this inner group came to be fixed at twelve. It seems clear that Jesus himself fixed it so, and, almost certainly, to symbolize the people of Israel with its traditional twelve tribes. In a very bold figure they are represented as "sitting on twelve thrones as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel." 18 They are addressed in terms proper to the people of God as an entity. All through the Old Testament, Israel is the "flock" of God, and so Jesus addresses the Twelve: "Have no fear, little flock; for your Father has chosen to give you the kingdom." 19 They are the Israel-to-be in miniature; not indeed to the exclusion of other disciples; it does not appear that in the gospels the Twelve form anything like a closed corporation. The center of the community is defined clearly enough: it is centered in Jesus and those closest to him; but its boundaries are not drawn. Any who hear his call to "repentance" and accept from his teaching the direction for their "change of mind," are members of the Israel-to-be. It is impossible, on the evidence we have, to distinguish clearly among the ethical sayings those which were delivered to a public audience, or in the course of discussion in a mixed group, or privately to the inner circle. Nor is it necessary to do so. In one aspect they are addressed to all and sundry, laying down the lines of an absolute ethic determined by the coming of the kingdom of God; but insofar as individuals accept them as such, and commit themselves, the new Israel is being formed, and the ethical teaching of Jesus becomes the new law by which it is to be governed.

But over and above the broad ethical teaching, intrinsically universal in its scope, there are sayings addressed directly to the disciples as a community in being, capable of being compared and contrasted with other existing communities: "You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great men make them feel the weight of authority. That is not the way with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all." 20 The theme recurs with striking frequency. Evidently it was, in the mind of Jesus, fundamental to the whole idea of the divine commonwealth. The saying just quoted is said to have been called forth by the appearance of rivalries among the Twelve. We seem to have a glimpse of a group of men striving to become a real community, and blundering through natural human failings. They are enthusiasts; they have given up everything for the cause; that in itself implies a more than average power of concentration on an object. That such men should entertain a not ignoble ambition to be leaders in the community can easily be understood. Nor was it wrong to seek leadership, provided it was the leadership of service. Any other form of the ambition to be first was directly contrary to the very idea of the people of God as Jesus conceived it. On one occasion he is reported to have enforced the lesson by example, when he took upon himself the duty (which in most households was performed by a slave) of washing the feet of his company. 21 "Who is the greater," he asked, "the one who sits at table, or the servant who waits on him? Surely the one who sits at table. Yet here am I among you like a servant." 22 We should understand this idea of the primacy of selfless service as applying not only to the relations of individuals within the community, but also to the function of the community in the world. The "messianic" idea as popularly held meant both the rule of the Messiah over Israel and also the domination of Israel over the nations. The new Israel has a "Messiah" who is the servant of all, and it must find itself in the like way of service.

The full scope of the demand made on the Twelve as the nucleus of the new community comes into view at the point when Jesus decided to lead them to Jerusalem, where by this time opposition had consolidated in the seats of power. It was clear that in going there he was putting his head into the lion’s mouth. Those who accompanied him must be under no illusion. Commitment to his cause now meant even more than it had done when they were called to leave home and livelihood. "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be a disciple of mine. No one who does not carry his cross and come with me can be a disciple of mine." 23 So Luke has it. Matthew gives the saying in slightly different terms: "No man is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me; no man is worthy of me who cares more for son or daughter; no man is worthy of me who does not take up his cross and walk in my footsteps." 24

Most likely Jesus deliberately chose the harsh and extreme language which we find in Luke. It is in the tone of the occasion. He was calling for volunteers who renounce everything, renounce ("hate") life itself. And this renunciation of life is expressed again, in the most harshly realistic terms. To "carry the cross" is no mere metaphor. Crucifixion was the Romans’ short way with rebels. A criminal condemned to this atrocious punishment was normally compelled to carry to the place of execution the crossbeam to which he was to be fastened. That is the picture which the words of Jesus conjured up in the minds of those who heard him. They were to go to Jerusalem like a procession of condemned criminals with halters round their necks. Such was to be the end of the journey for him; he invited them to share it. "Can you drink the cup that I drink," he asked, "and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with ?" "We can," they replied. 25

It should be noted that the call to "carry the cross" is addressed to those who volunteered for service on a particular occasion. Jesus did not expect all those who had come to him in faith to accompany him on this desperate venture nor, if they did not do so, did he mean to disqualify them for a part in the new community. But the principle upon which the call is based is a universal one: "Whoever cares for his own safety is lost; but if a man will let himself be lost for my sake and for the gospel, that man is safe." 26

John has given this saying in a peculiarly suggestive setting. We have seen how central to the ideal of the emergence of the people of God is the thought expressed in the parables of seed and harvest. John has another such parable, in which the thought takes a deeper turn: "A grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest"; 27 and then, with an echo of Luke’s language about "hating’ one’s own life, "The man who loves himself is lost, but he who hates himself [in this world] will be kept safe [for eternal life]." Renunciation of self is the principle that validates the total commitment to God and his kingdom which Jesus demanded. In circumstances which put it to the utmost test, it might find expression in actual martyrdom, but something of its quality must be present in all truly ethical action. We have seen that the whole conception of a new people of God is based upon the principle of "dying to live," and here we have a model of the Israel-to-be as it shaped itself in the company of the followers of Jesus. In them the people of God was to die in order to live again.

The march on Jerusalem ended, as Jesus had foreseen, in a situation of intense conflict. As it reached its climax, he gathered the Twelve for a solemn meal together. At the close of the meal he passed round a cup of wine with the words, "This cup is the new covenant sealed with my blood" 28 -- these or similar words, for they are handed down in somewhat varying forms. There will be more to be said about this pregnant utterance, but for the moment it is the term "covenant" that concerns us. It was the postulate of the Jewish religion that the status of Israel as the people of God was founded upon a "covenant" which bound them to his service. When complete collapse came in the sixth century BC., a prophet had spoken of a "new covenant" as the basis of the new Israel that was to arise from the ruins of the old. 29 In the time of Jesus the sectaries of Qumran regarded themselves as the people of the new covenant. The idea, therefore, of a covenant as the foundation charter (so to speak) of the people of God was very much alive at the time, and there can be no doubt what Jesus had in mind when he invited his followers to drink of the cup of the covenant: he was formally installing them as foundation members of the new people of God.

And yet before the night was over they deserted him; he was arrested and brought to trial, and they scattered and left him to his fate. The new Israel seemed to have melted away at its very inception. And this raises an acute historical problem: how was it, in these circumstances, that the Christian Church ever got going at all? The answer that the first Christians gave (and who could know better than they?) was that Jesus returned to them, alive after death, and that this return was an act of forgiveness, which reinstated them in the place they had forfeited by their disloyalty. This is movingly portrayed in a dramatic scene at the end of the Fourth Gospel, where Peter meets the risen Jesus on the lake shore, after a night’s fruitless fishing. Peter, we have been told, had emphatically and even brutally dissociated himself from his Master at the time of his trial. After that, Peter never again saw him alive until that morning by the lake, when, unexpectedly, incredibly, they met again. Part of the conversation which followed must be transcribed in John’s words: "After breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered, ‘You know I love you,’ ‘Then tend my sheep.’

Then be added, ‘Follow me.’ "So in those words the deserter is brought back to the very beginning and given a fresh start, his disloyalty blotted out. It is a picture of what happened to the "little flock" in which the new people of God was embodied. It had indeed melted away, and there was nothing to show for all the work that had been done, until it was re-created by an act of forgiveness. This was the emergence of the new Israel, of which the prophets had spoken in terms of resurrection from the grave. That was how the church was brought into existence, and it could never forget that its foundation members were discredited men who owed their position solely to the magnanimity of their ill-used Master.


1 Horace Odes III. 5.

2 Luke 19. 9-10.

3Luke 13.16.

4 Matt. 15.24 (absent from some mss.).

5 Matt. 16.3

6 Luke 13. 25.

7 Mark 11.17.

8 Matt. 3.9, Luke 8.8.

9 This idea is elaborated into a highly dramatic picture in Ezekiel 37. 1-14.

10 Luke 11.50-51, Matt. 23. 35-36.

11 Luke 19. 41-44. The vivid details of the siege are drawn from descriptions of the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

l2John 2.19, Matt. 26.61, Mark 14.58.

13 Mark 4. 26-29.

14 Luke 10. 2-3, Matt. 9. 37-38.

15 Matt. 4.19, Mark 1.17, Luke 5.10.

16 Matt. 13.47.

17 Mark 2.22, Luke 5.38, Matt. 9.17.

18 Matt. 19.28, Luke 22.30.

19 Luke 12.32.

20 Mark 10.42-44, Matt. 20.2.

21 John 13. 5-9.

22 Luke 22.27.

23 Luke 14. 26-27.

24 Matt. 10. 37-38.

25 Mark 10.38, Matt. 20.22.

26 Mark 8.35

27 John 12. 24-25.

28 I Corinthians 21.25, Matt. 26.28, Mark 14.24.

29 The new covenant: Jeremiah 31. 31-34.

3O John 21. 15-19.