Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Earliest Christian Belief About Jesus: What Evidence Do We Have?

posted by Mark D. Roberts

In my last post I laid out a popular theory among some scholars for how
the early Christians came to think of Jesus as divine. Let me review it
briefly. According to this theory, the first followers of Jesus didn’t
consider him to be divine, but only an inspired man. The earliest
Christians were, after all, monotheistic Jews who didn’t go around
divinizing people. But as the Christian movement spread into the Roman
Empire, it encountered a very different ethos and was transformed by
that ethos. In the Greco-Roman world, unlike in the Jewish world, the
line between humanity and divinity was frequently crossed, not only by
mythological heroes like Hercules, but also by flesh-and-blood human
beings like the Roman Caesars. So it was only natural that formerly
pagan Christians, competing for religious allegiance against a slew of
Greco-Roman cults, would divinize Jesus. Therefore, the one who was once
only an inspired human redeemer and teacher became the One who was
regarded as divine. (Those who reject classical Christian faith
criticize this move to deify Jesus as an unnecessary and inauthentic
add-on. Real Christianity, they claim, affirms the specialness of the
human Jesus, but not his deity. See, for example, the prolific writings
of Marcus Borg.)

I mentioned before that this theory has merit
as one possible explanation of how Jesus came to be seen as God. It
isn’t a crazy theory (like the ones that “expose” Jesus as a space alien
or a closet homosexual). One of the benefits of the “Jesus was
divinized under the influence of Greco-Roman culture” theory is that we
can actually look closely at the historical evidence to see if it is
true or not.

What is the evidence for earliest Christian belief?
Unfortunately, we don’t have newspaper accounts or in-depth interviews
of the earliest followers of Jesus. There weren’t many reliable bloggers
or videographers in the first-century A.D. either. In fact, we don’t
have any information about the very earliest Christian beliefs beyond
what we find in the New Testament itself. The earliest Roman and Jewish
descriptions of Christianity confirm what we see in Christian sources,
but they were written at the end of the first-century A.D., decades
after the Christian sources at our disposal. The Gnostic writings, which
are sometimes brought forward as witnesses to earliest Christian
belief, were written after most if not all of the New Testament. So they
provide little data for understanding earliest Christian belief, though
they are helpful for our knowledge of second-century and later
Christian thought and practice.

The New Testament alone provides
authentic historical information about the earliest Christians, yet this
doesn’t come in systematic or exhaustive packages. Acts of the Apostles
supplies some clues to the earliest Christian beliefs, but tells only a
small part of the story of early Christianity. Acts was written maybe
fifty years after the events themselves (though with the help of earlier
written sources no longer available to us). The New Testament Gospels
tell the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but provide scant evidence of
what his first followers did and thought after Jesus disappeared from
the scene. (The literary/historical discipline of form-criticism does
provide some access to this evidence, but its results are often quite
speculative.)

Some scholars point to the document known as “Q” as
a helpful source for earliest Christian beliefs. “Q” gets its name from
the German word “Quelle” which means “source.” You’ll even find some
scholars who write about several versions of “Q,” going back to the very
earliest days of Christianity. In the first drafts of “Q,” which
conveniently don’t include verses in “Q” that contradict the “human
Jesus” theory, Jesus is an inspired teacher of wisdom, but not a divine
figure. The problem with this theory is that it is basically fiction.
There is no document “Q” in existence. It is a scholarly construct. Now,
I happen to believe that the theory that Matthew and Luke had access to
a document that consisted mainly of sayings of Jesus is a plausible
one. But scholars who think they can peel back the editorial layers of
this theoretical document, and in so doing get back to some authentic
core of Christian belief, have more confidence in the scholarly
inventions than I do. In truth, they’re making it all up on the basis of
precious little actual evidence. So even if there was a “Q” document,
discussion of layers of “Q” and the early “Q communities” provides a
sandy foundation for an understanding of earliest Christian belief. (If
you’re interested in the contents of “Q,” check this helpful list.)
(Photo: A page of a biblical manuscript known as Papyrus 46 [p46]. This
page contains portions of Galatians and Philippians, and has been dated
to the second century A.D.)

p46-Gal-Phil-5.jpg

If
Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament Gospels, and even the elusive
“Q” don’t give us too much information about earliest Christian belief,
where can we turn? To the writings of the Apostle Paul. Though scholars
debate the details, all serious scholars agree that Paul’s letters were
penned within a fifteen-year period beginning in the late forties A.D.
This means that the earliest Pauline letters were written only 15-20
years after the death of Jesus. Thus the letters themselves are primary
evidence of what some of the earliest Christians believed. These people
would include Paul, to be sure, and also his churches and his
theological opponents.

Moreover, within Paul’s letters there are
passages that, in all likelihood, capture Christian beliefs that are
earlier than the late forties A.D. Just as a preacher today might quote a
bit of a hymn or a song, Paul included such materials in his letters.
Some of these can be identified with a high level of probability. Thus
these passages in particular get us back to some of the earliest
Christian beliefs, those that pre-date Paul’s own writings.

In my
next post I want to begin to look at one of these passages in Paul’s
letters, a passage that most certainly includes one of the very earliest
records of Christian belief about Jesus.



  • http://theliberalspirit.com/awretchedman/index.php Obie Holmen

    I think your analysis is sound to this point, but I sense you are moving toward a conclusion that would suggest Paul’s writings, and perhaps his use of an apparent early hymn found in Philippians 2, is evidence of early Christian christological views. Perhaps I am anticipating too much, but if that is the direction of your thought, I would disagree.
    I think Paul’s writings and that early hymn may well represent the early christological views of PAULINE, GENTILE CHURCHES but that does resolve the question of what the earliest Christians (an anachronistic term in this context) believed. The earliest followers were the disciples, family, and other Jews of Jersusalem. These predated Paul and the Pauline, Gentile mission. These Jewish followers may well have embraced a “lower” christological view than did Paul and his followers, a view more consistent with Jewish messianic expectations.
    It is well documented that Paul and the Jerusalem Jewish followers had running disagreements during the first generation after the death of Jesus. At a minimum, these disagreements pertained to ritual Torah (circumcision, Sabbath and festivals, and diet). It is a legitimate question whether their disagreements extended more broadly to differing Hebrew points of view vs Hellenistic influences, including hints of christological disagreement.
    At various points in his correspondence, Paul disputes that he learned anything from “human origin” or “human source”, and he is clearly referring to Peter and James back in Jerusalem and clearly indicating that he held differing views from the Jerusalem establishment. Is it a radical leap to infer that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have held views closer to the traditional Hebrew Messianic expectations which were more political than divine, ie a lower christology?
    Jump ahead to the second century writings of Ireneaus who wrote of the beliefs of the Ebionites (the remaining branch of Jewish Christians)suggesting they held Paul to be an apostate and maintained a human christology. Did the views of these Jewish Christians date back to the original Jewish Christians? Not conclusive but suggestive.
    We can’t be sure that these original, Jewish followers of Jesus who predated the Pauline, Gentile mission held lower christological views, but we certainly can’t conclude that Pauline, Gentile theology that would have brushed up against Hellenistic influences, reflected the christology of the earliest followers of Jesus.

  • Jonathan Biggar

    But Paul was a Pharisee, trained in the Jewish law. Why would he not be as traditionally “Messianic” as the other apostles in Jerusalem?
    And if there was a theological difference, why wouldn’t Paul and/or the author of Acts write about it? My reading of Acts and discussion of the differences between Paul and Peter suggests to me that there *weren’t* theological differences, since the Christian leaders in Jerusalem only sent out a statement about *behavior* (don’t eat meat offered to idols and avoid sexual immorality), not about affirming or disclaiming any theological questions.

  • Mark D. Roberts

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll try to interact with the ideas you raise as this series moves along.

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