Did later Christians change what the earliest followers of Jesus believed about him?


Why do an overwhelming number of Christians believe (or say they believe) things about Jesus that were not believed by his earliest followers in Jerusalem, led by his brother James?


This important question results from the previous Q and A item, which summarized central teaching about Jesus Christ that has united most Christians since it was finalized by 5th Century ecumenical councils. It holds that the one true God exists in a Trinity of three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that Jesus the Son has two natures, fully human yet fully divine. Myriad worshipers over centuries have professed each week that Jesus Christ is of one “being” or “substance” with God the Father.

However, in modern times the traditional teaching has been challenged in differing ways by secular thinkers, Protestant liberals, Unitarians, Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain Pentecostalists and, of course, by religions totally outside the Christian orbit like Judaism and Islam.

The Religion Guy confesses he has not read the hefty books that discuss this and relies upon secondary materials from the experts. This answer bypasses numerous technicalities; if interested, you can research why early church councils rejected the teaching of the Apollinarians, Arians, Docetists, Ebionites, Eutychians, Gnostics, Sabellians and the rest. Note that the question raises only the divinity of Jesus the Son, not of the Holy Spirit, and only what the earliest Christians believed, not how Jesus thought of himself.

About James. He was one of Jesus’ four "brothers" (Mark 6:3) and a skeptic turned believer who, yes, led the original church in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin accused James of violating Jewish law and he was executed in A.D. 62. He’s traditionally seen as the writer of the New Testament’s letter of James, though other options have been proposed.

With that ground cleared, on to Norman’s theme. Obviously the councils used terms like “Trinity” not found as such in the New Testament as they sought to put into words a concept beyond comprehension -- Jesus as both human and divine. So, did the councils change original Christianity? Or were they faithful to what 1st Century Christians believed and only defined the full implications?

Norman echoes the liberal outlook proclaimed especially by Germany’s Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920) in his influential 1913 tome “Kyrios Christos,” a high point of his "religionsgeschichtliche schule" (history of religions school). In essence, Bousset contended that Palestinian Jews would have believed so strictly in the one God that they couldn’t have viewed the human Jesus as divine. Therefore, such belief must have infiltrated from pagan Greek culture. Click here (.pdf) for agood academic rundown on that.

More recently, a group of scholars led by Larry W. Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, is challenging Bousset. Hurtado’s quarter-century of research culminated in his tour de force “Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity” (2003). He boils down major points for non-academic readers in “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus” (2005) and in this 2010 paper (.pdf here).

Bousset admitted the evident fact that Jesus became the object of intense devotion remarkably early and rapidly. Hurtado considers it possible this occurred among devout Jews even before the apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion in A.D. 36 some three years after Jesus was crucified (dates per Jack Finegan, Pacific School of Religion). Hurtado’s special contribution assesses non-biblical materials and what’s known about the original Christians’ “unprecedented devotional practices” that signified he was worthy of the worship due God alone.

But inevitably the best 1st Century sources are in the New Testament, Paul’s letters from A.D. 51 onward, followed by the other letters and the four Gospels.


Continue reading "Did later Christians change what Jesus’ earliest followers believed about him?", by Richard Ostling.

Please respect our Commenting Policy