Sunday, May 6, 2012

What is "Christianity" in the First Place?

The Importance of Defining Christianity

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:

I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen.

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.)


  1. Just a quick comment. I know you say that there's good evidence that the early Christians identified Jesus as God incarnate, but I should mention that this is, to my knowledge, not the mainstream view among critical scholars. Here's what Bart Ehrman says about this:

    "That the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God is not a controversial point among scholars. Apart from fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals, scholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles." (Did Jesus Exist?, p. 231)

    If Ehrman is right about this being the mainstream view, and if the mainstream view is correct, then by your definition of "Christianity" most of the people living today who identify with the religion would not actually count as Christians.

    That strikes me as an implausible consequence of your definition. Whatever the correct definition of "Christianity" is (if there is one), it shouldn't entail that there are very few living Christians.

  2. Hmmm interesting thoughts Landon. Thanks for taking the time to look at this.

    I guess if the earliest Christians (30-80 A.D.) didn't believe Jesus is God, and now the Christians do today, I would still consider us to be very much within the category of "Christians." The gospel message agreed upon by James, John, Peter, and subsequently Paul is that the Messiah died for their sins and rose from the dead. As I briefly mentioned above, Messiah is a royal designation of a king who would one day defeat Israel's enemies, bring world peace, and rule the whole world. (I also noticed this figure regularly come up when I read the Old Testament). Given this designation, Christians today would also be well within the category of original Christianity, since they believe Jesus is the Messiah as I defined it above. However, they would just have a particularly exalted picture of the Messiah, who would have the additional characteristic of being God incarnate. This view of Messiah does seem to fit within some pictures that Old Testament prophets give of Messiah (Zechariah 12-14; Isaiah 9;6, etc.) So although on that view Christians today would be worshipping a very exalted Messiah, it would still fall under the category of Messiah.

    Thank you for providing the Ehrman quote. I was unsure of the state of scholarship on that matter. Granted you admitted this is a possibility, but scholars are often confused about what other scholars believe. (Craig seems to fall in this category sometimes as well). (I except Habermas because of his 3,400 source Bibliography on historical Jesus.)

    Nevertheless, I do find it quite confusing that some scholars would think that early Christians didn't think Jesus was God (just my personal opinion based on my reading of the New Testament). In an undisputed letter of Paul, (Philippians 2- circa 50 A.D.), Paul quotes what is believed to be an early church hymn about Jesus, where he has the "nature" of God and "equality" with God. Romans 10 (undisputed authorship) might very well directly call Jesus "God." Later in the chapter, Paul takes an Old Testament quote about "the Lord" (Yahweh) and applies it to Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul quotes an Aramaic prayer related to the second coming of Jesus "Maranatha" which means "Come, Lord." Whenever "the Lord" is rendered in the NT in reference to Jesus, it is using the same Greek word that the Septuagint (Greek old testament that Paul would have used) used for "Yahweh." "Lord Jesus" is ambiguous, because it could be a title of authority. But calling jesus "the Lord" is an expression which identifies Jesus with Yahweh. James talks about "the Lord's coming." There are many many places that I would consider it to be a very strong pronouncement of deity to Jesus in early letters of the New Testament. Hence why I am so confused why they would think this. Thanks again for the quote. But I would be very interested in finding out why they do in fact think so.

  3. I was trying to go by this statement of yours:

    "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."

    Now, if the original disciples were preaching an entirely human messiah, then the later idea that the messiah was actually God incarnate is not in accordance with the original preaching. In fact, it seems that such an idea directly contradicts the earlier preaching. It would be a "message of Christianity that is not directly tied to the followers of Jesus."

    As for why this is the mainstream view, I don't know much about that. I trust that Ehrman is accurately reporting the consensus in the field. He does deal with some of the issues in the pages surrounding the quote I provided. I've heard that James McGrath's book The Only True God and James Dunn's book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? discuss the issue in detail.

  4. Another thought occurred to me. Suppose you set out to try to define what "Platonism" is. On the one hand, you could say that it is the overall view held by Plato himself. But then, given how difficult it is to interpret Plato on so many issues, that would have the result that many people who think they are "Platonists" and who even label themselves as such may not be Platonists after all. Your view about "Christianity" seems to have this result as well.

    Platonism also cannot be identified with the doctrines held by the students of Plato, since they didn't all hold the same views. Aristotle, for example, was not a Platonist.

    It's not at all clear (to me) how to settle an issue like this. My inclination is to say that you're a Christian if you attend a Christian church and self-identify as a Christian. But many such people hold views about Jesus and early Christianity that are quite at odds with your own views. This seems to have the following implausible result given your view: Either you are not a Christian, or they are not a Christian. But I'd naturally say that you're both Christians.

  5. In fact, I should say: Even my claim that Aristotle was not a Platonist is controversial. (And it's rather badly put anyway, since Aristotle may have been a Platonist early on in his philosophical career.)

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. (I removed my first comment, which is almost exactly the same as this one, in order to make some very minor changes to it.)

    I like your comparison Landon. Indeed, many belief sets can only be defined by their "family resemblance" with other beliefs. Indeed, as far as the historical note you make regarding Platonism specifically, that is interesting historical information, because Jim Eiswert mentioned some interpretive issues with Plato that might be in contrast with a "two world" reading of Plato. The fact that Aristotle may have been Platonist is interesting.

    However, I do think that early Christianity had much more rigorous parameters than that. Paul said that anyone who preached another gospel was eternally condemned. The first part of the book of Galatians is dedicated to establishing that Paul's gospel was not his own, but in accordance with what the disciples and Jesus told him through a revelation.

    You mention the idea that they may have preached a purely human Messiah. However, I think its more ambiguous that. If I say someone is the "Messiah" it is necessarily a human figure (contra Gnosticism) and at the very very least, possibly divine (from a theological standpoint). Though if someone said that someone was the Messiah in the 1st century it did not automatically imply deity (and in most cases deity was not added). However, from an Old Testament perspective, a powerful case can be made that the Messiah is portrayed as God. To illustrate the strength of this point, the link below shows some passages where the "divine Messiah" motif seems to carry great force in the Old Testament.;%2016-19;%20Isaiah%209:6&version=NIV

    You mentioned James Dunn's book regarding the first Christians and the worship of Jesus. I have listened to him dialogue with NT Wright (on other issues), but Wright is also a very respected scholar and appears to disagree with him on this point (even tho he finds much agreement with Dunn on other issues). NT Wright is a very respected scholar. Indeed, in his debate with John Dominic Crossan, Crossan conceded the empty tomb, where in his debate with Craig or Habermas (I don't remember which) he does not. I point that out to show how much of a "heavey weight" he is in the field. He is not a stereotypical American evangelical either, because he was Bishop of Durham in the UK for quite some time.

    I also question Ehrman's assessment of all scholars. They sometimes make mistakes in this regard (Craig may exagerrate how many scholars concede the empty tomb). I noticed Ehrman excluded "fundamentalists" and a few "conservative evangelicals." What Ehrman wants to call a "fundamentalist" and a "conservative evangelical" is probably a significant portion of the scholarship on the matter.

    But I return to Paul's hymn in Phillippians 2, where Paul says Jesus has the nature of God, and is Lord, and "every knee will bow" to him, which is something God says in the Old Testament that will happen to him.

    Also, Paul's repeated application of Old Testament texts about Yahweh to Jesus, without much explanation, and his regular use of "Kyrios" on Jesus (the Septuagint word for "the Lord" or Yahweh) seems to me a good reason to believe Paul thought of Jesus as Yahweh. 1 Peter (it seems its accepted by scholars) also discusses OT scripture passages about "the Lord" and immediately turns around and says to revere Christ as Lord.

    I should do more reading on this. I appreciate you mentioning those two books (and your very interesting comments of course). I shall have to get them from a library or something.

  9. The interpretive difficulties for Plato are numerous, and we'll probably never know for sure what view Plato actually held on a number of topics he wrote about.

    As for Paul, he may have said that those who preached a different gospel were condemned, but I'm not sure that gets us out of the problem. Suppose it turns out that Paul actually believed important things about Jesus that almost no Christians today believe. There must be some non-zero probability that this is the case. Of course you won't buy this, but certain mythicists argue that Paul never even believed Jesus was an historical human being. Perhaps their arguments for this claim are pretty weak, but there must be some non-zero probability that they're right. Given that their view is possible, just suppose that it turns out to be correct. Paul and the other early Christians (e.g. Peter) did not believe in an historical Jesus. Now, on your view, that means that you are not a Christian--and many millions of people who claim to be Christians aren't actually Christians, either. I guess my underlying worry is just this: Any definition that could have this result must be mistaken, since you and many other people clearly are Christians.

    Perhaps there are indications in the Old Testament that the messiah would be divine (I don't know enough about the topic myself). But that doesn't entail that the earliest Christians were making that claim. If they were claiming that the messiah was entirely human, then their view is at odds with yours--since you maintain that the messiah was God incarnate. And if that's the case, it looks like it has the result that you're not a Christian given your own definition.

    You're right, N.T. Wright seems to be a respected scholar in the field. But if his view is in the minority, then it's in the minority. Ehrman has reasons for separating out the critical scholars and the fundamentalists, even though (as you point out) there are probably a lot of fundamentalists and conservative evangelical scholars as well. Many of those scholars teach at religious institutions where they must sign a statement of faith saying that they believe in the inerrancy of scripture, etc. I take it this is not a view that's arrived at by close and careful study of the Bible, but instead by prior religious commitment. Many of the scholars Ehrman is referring to are Christians--or at least they take themselves to be Christians. It's just that they think the earliest Christians weren't preaching a Jesus who was God incarnate.

    You might be interested in Ehrman's book Did Jesus Exist?, because he does discuss the Philippians passage a little bit.