So with all this talk by me of why "Christianity" is true, it's pretty important that we establish what I understand "Christianity" to be in the first place. I have a list of blog posts I want to make (which happens to be increasing in my mind as I think of more) but defining the Christian message was on the list. However, my friend Justin also suggested I define Christianity, so I figured it was high time to do a post on it.
I have actually researched this on my own long before I was studying philosophy or blogging about apologetics. I created a document during my freshman year in college as a response to some theological issues I was discussing with some friends. So, keep in mind as you look at the document, my purposes at the time were primarily theological, and not historical. But I'm glad I did it, because it helped me to learn the essential components of early historical Christianity as well.
As far as my initial assumptions, I do not regard anything to be "Christianity" if it is not in accordance with something that the original disciples of Jesus taught. So, regardless of how early rival forms of Jesus-related belief were floating around in the first century, I dismiss any message of Christianity that is not directly tied to the followers of Jesus in some way. This would mean I disregard things such as Gnosticism or other rival beliefs since they aren't tied to the apostles. However, you will find I use Paul as a source a lot for finding out what the apostles of Jesus believed. I have good historical reason for doing so, which should become clear as this progresses.
Paul's Meeting with James (Jesus' Brother), Peter, and John
Galatians and 1 Corinthians are 2 of the 7 undisputed letters of Paul. In Galatians 2, Paul talks about how he preached the gospel to Gentile audiences long before conferring with any of Jesus' disciples. He went to Jerusalem to meet with those recognized as "pillars" of Christianity, for the specific purpose of making sure that his message was the same as theirs, so that he could be sure that he was not running his race "in vain." He actually conferred with them on 2-3 occasions, and they "added nothing to my message." Furthermore, James, Peter and John, granted him the "right hand of fellowship" when they recognized the grace given to him. So, this shows that what Paul thinks about the original message of Christianity is very important, since it agrees with what James, Peter and John think about it as well.
The Unanimous Message of the Apostles
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul cites a creed that he "received" and "passed on as of first importance." He says that the Corinthians obtain salvation if they "hold firmly" to this message. According to most New Testament historians, this creed was formulated as part of oral tradition within 5 years of the death of Jesus. According to atheist New Testament historian Gerd Ludemann, it was created even earlier, within 2 years of the death of Jesus. Paul notes that "whether it is or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed." Paul seems to imply that the creed he quotes is the same message as the others who preach it, which is presumably the disciples' as well. Here it is:
"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born." (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
Here, we can see that the gospel is that Christ (Greek for "Messiah") died for their sins, was buried, and was resurrected, appearing to many witnesses. All of this takes place "according to the Scriptures," that is, in accordance to Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah.
The Commission of the Risen Lord and the Early Preaching of the Apostles
This bears a very striking resemblance to Luke's quote of the resurrected Jesus immediately prior to his ascension:
"He told them, 'This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.'"
They both have the Messiah die and rise from the dead. They both refer to witnesses for the resurrection. They both speak of the need for believing the message or "repentance" (Gr. metanoia means to change one's mind about something). They both mention its connection to Old Testament prophecy. Finally, they both talk about how what Jesus did was done to eradicate and provide forgiveness for sin.
(Keep in mind that the word "Messiah" refers to a future king frequently encountered in Old Testament prophecy who would bring world peace, defeat Israel's enemies, and rule the entire world.)
In fact, Luke's quote of Christ is so dramatically similar to the speeches in Acts (also written by Luke) that one can easily make a chart out of it. Click the link below and it leads right to one of the charged pages in the document I wrote:
(Full document available at the bottom of the blog post)
These are all of the places where Paul's message in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (which he seems to say has the approval of the disciples) bears striking resemblance to Luke's quotation of the risen Lord, and the original preaching by the apostles. However, as we will see in a moment, this format is primarily used when preaching to those who are Jews or those familiar with Judaism. When preaching to Gentiles, the meaning of the word "Messiah" would be unknown to the listeners, and "forgiveness of sins" might be a confusing concept. Therefore, as apostle to the Gentiles (a designation agreed upon by James, John and Peter), Paul must translate this very Jewish sounding message into terms that Greeks, barbarians, and polytheists can understand.
Paul's Translation of the Gospel for non-Jews
We have seen above that the original message of Christianity that was used to gain converts, is that the Messiah died for sins and raised from the dead. However, in Romans (another undisputed letter of Paul), he defines his message in similar terms, but with very noticeable differences.
"But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile —the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:8-13)
For those who are interested, I chart out what I call the "dissimilar" passages and explain how each of them is harmonious with the original message here:
A Note on Christ's Deity
The gospel is that the Messiah died for sins and rose from the dead. However, the word "Messiah" did not imply automatically that someone was God incarnate. However, given certain Old Testament passages (Isaiah 9:6; Zechariah 12-14; Daniel 7:13-14) it seems one could easily infuse divinity in the Messiah figure. This appears to be what the apostles did. Peter, in his first speech to those in Jerusalem, calls Christ "Lord" or "kurios" (the Greek Old Testament word for the name of God). Many of the Acts speeches apply titles to Christ that are only properly applicable to God. Furthermore, Paul and the other apostles, call Jesus God or "Lord" in their letters early on. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that the early Christians worshiped Jesus as God very early on. More evidence for this can be found here:
They seemed to place a very high significance on believing that Jesus is God. In fact, Paul says that if a person believes "Jesus is Lord" (in the Romans passage above) and they believe in the resurrection, they are saved. However, he uses the Old Testament as evidence for his salvation formula, saying that "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." It must be kept in mind that the phrase "the Lord" in Greek was what the Septuagint used instead of "Yahweh." So, when calling Jesus "Lord" in this passage, Paul is using exactly the same word that the Greek Old Testament at the time used for the very name of God. So it seems that even though the concept of divinity isn't inherent in the idea of Messiah, the early Christians very much intended it to be so in Jesus' case.
A Note on Secondary Doctrines
Keep in mind that the apostles are coming from a Jewish background, and in no way intend to depart from their Jewish context. They would consider the message about the death and resurrection of the Messiah for forgiveness of sins to be the goal and culmination of Judaism. Considering this to be the case, they all regarded God as Creator of the entire world. They also believed in the Spirit of God, which is very prominently themed in early Christian preaching and letters. Eternal life through Jesus is also something they believed in, especially since they sided with the Pharisees and believed in a general resurrection at the end of time. The Second Coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead is a prominent component in preaching to Gentiles in the early church, since they had no built-in Jewish concept of a coming judgement day by God (Acts 10; Acts 17).
In fact, it is very easy to show that the apostles believed in the vast majority of what we refer to as the "Apostles Creed" today. Whether or not the apostles actually made the apostles creed doesn't matter, since it would be easy to show that they believed in most of the doctrines therein:
So that's Christianity. That's what I believe is true and what I want other people to believe too, because doing so secures their salvation.
(The full document can be found here. The formatting kind of sucks because Google doesn't know how to upload things, so bear with me).
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
Apostle's Creed from Wikipedia
(IMPORTANT CORRECTION: the "James" I refer to above is not the James who was one of the disciples, but the half brother of Jesus. He was the leader of the Jerusalem church and converted due to an appearance of Jesus.)