Monday, May 14, 2012

How Did Early Christianity Develop?

Here is my theory, for what it is worth. I will sketch it here, and it is based on the work of reputable New Testament scholars and historians of Christianity.

The full divinity of Jesus (the Trinity) does not come until much later on.

In my opinion, what the earliest Jewish Christians believed (and I could cite the specialist literature here) is the following:
(1) during most of his lifetime Jesus was a human prophet, born of ordinary parents (no virgin birth, no incarnation, and no divinity) prophesying the imminent arrival of the “kingdom of god”: the end times where Israel would get its Messiah and be freed from the bloody and cruel tyranny of Rome. Jesus was thought to be a miracle working prophet, just like Old Testament prophetic figures who possessed the holy spirit (see M. D. Goulder, “A Poor Man’s Christology,” New Testament Studies 45 [1999]: 332-348).

(2) by the time of the Jerusalem passover events, possibly Jesus either (a) now thought of himself as the Messiah or (b) many of his followers and ordinary people in Jerusalem thought he was Messiah (whether Jesus explicitly denied this or “tacitly” accepted it and allowed it, who knows?); he was killed by the Romans as a Messianic pretender, for disturbing the peace and for treason (what the Romans called the crime of maiestas).

(3) the movement collapsed after Jesus’s death and the disciples fled back to Galilee (this appears to be the earliest tradition implied in Mark and Matthew). There they had visions of Jesus and think he has been resurrected. Later they appear in Jerusalem proclaiming this.

(4) Jesus is now proclaimed Messiah - Israel’s king - and resurrected “son of god” (that is, as the Israelite kings were “sons of god” - but not in a divine sense). Jesus is now like the exalted prophet Elijah (the OT imagines Elijah being exalted to heaven to become a heavenly being), except he died and was raised to heaven.

(5) Jesus is now a heavenly king and Messiah, who will return soon, an exalted figure and god’s chief agent.

The early Christians do call Jesus “lord” and no doubt this title began as a merely earthly title for teacher or “rabbi.” But now when used of the exalted Jesus it starts to have a quasi-blasphemous ring to it to non-Christian Jewish contemporaries, for “Lord” is also the proper title for god.

Nevertheless, Jesus is not, strictly speaking, divine for early Jewish Christians: there is only one god, and Jesus is not in the same category.

(6) I suspect that the apostle Paul creates the notion of Jesus’s pre-existence: certainly he teaches this (he needs it for his new gospel of freedom from the Mosaic law), and probably Paul assimilated Jesus to personified attributes of god like “wisdom” or the “logos” or a first-born, angelic chief agent, ideas actually common in 1st century Hellenistic and Palestinian Judaism.

See the excellent book of Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord, which shows how second temple Judaism had exalted heavenly figures like personified divine attributes (wisdom, the logos), exalted patriarchs, and chief agents/angels.

Paul invents the notion of the incarnation (though not the virgin birth) but makes it clear that Jesus, as a pre-existent heavenly being, does not want equality with god (full divinity) in Philippians 2.6–8:
… Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος• καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ.

“…. Christ Jesus
who, being in the form of God did not deem it a prize to be equal with God,
but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave
born/becoming in the form of men,
and having appeared (or having been found) in shape as a man
he humbled himself, becoming obedient until death
and death on a cross.” (Phil 2.6–8).
Nevertheless, by this stage Paul’s Jesus is looking quasi-divine.

(7) by the time of the gospel of Matthew (c. 80 AD), a liberal Jewish Christian invents the virgin birth from a garbled reading of Isaiah.

(8) By the time of the gospel of John c. 90-100 AD, you have Jesus as a pre-existent, first-born god: “in the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with god, and the Word was god” (John 1:1). This is a development of Philippians 2.6–8 making explicit what Paul seems to deny (“Christ Jesus ... did not deem it a prize to be equal with God”).

(9) A few centuries later we have the Trinity, and so on. Christianity has become a religion for Greeks and Romans: Jesus is just another saviour god like Mithras, except his incarnation and death occurred in the recent past.

Jewish Christianity survives and seems to be reject Paul’s quasi-divine view of Jesus: Origen (Contra Celsum 5.65.5) tells us that “there are some sects who do not accept the epistles of the apostle Paul, such as the two kinds of Ebionites [= Jewish Christians].” And Eusebius tells us that both sects of Ebionites rejected Jesus’s pre-existence.
We also have to remember that Messianic movements could develop in extraordinary ways, even in modern times: we need only think of Sabbatai Zevi in the 1600s.

There is evidence that he actually signed letters with what was to many members of the Jewish community the most blasphemous phrase:
“the Lord, your God, Sabbatai Zevi” (Heinrich Graetz and Bella Lowy, History of the Jews, Vol. V, p. 143).
Yet Sabbatai Zevi still attracted a vast Jewish following during his lifetime.

And this was not after he died and his disciples claimed he had been resurrected, but when he lived!


  1. Could you elaborate a bit on how virgin birth was invented out of a garbled reading of Isaiah, as you just mentioned?

    Virgin birth sounds like one of the central pillars of Christianity, but it seems that early Christians would not have considered it so. They were following Christ even if he were just a normal human child born to normal human parents.

    And "son of God" just meant Israelite king? I had no idea.

    1. "Could you elaborate a bit on how virgin birth was invented out of a garbled reading of Isaiah, as you just mentioned?"

      I have given the background here:

      The virgin birth - in the view of many scholars - was invented by the author of the gospel of Matthew (written some time after 70 AD) or his source, so it was not an early belief of the first Jewish Christians.

  2. We've seen enough "new religious movements" arise in recent history, for example, Mormonism, the Taiping Rebellion and Melanesian cargo cults, that I don't see how anyone can make the case for christian exceptionalism. You don't need to invoke anything spooky to account for christian origins when you can see how other cults get started and attract converts.

    1. Yes, absolutely. Think of Sabbatai Zevi, as I have said in another comment, in the 1600s. He was a mystical Jewish rabbi and Kabbalist who proclaimed himself the Messiah. He even actually signed letters with this phrase:

      “the Lord, your God, Sabbatai Zevi”

      Think about this: this was the most blasphemous thing imaginable in orthodox Rabbinic Judaism, but the man attracted a vast Jewish following in his own lifetime.

      Even after he apostatized, some of his Jewish followers continued to think he was the Messiah - the movement, the Sabbatians, went on until the 19th century.

  3. An interesting account of the development of early Christianity is given in chapter three of Richard Tarnas's The Passion of the Western Mind, which frames it against the broader philosophical movements of the time. (As such, it's probably best not to skip the first two chapters.)

    You might enjoy it!

  4. Some thoughts on this ancient post.

    You ask the question whether Jesús never claimed to be a Messiah, or whether he tacitly accepted it during his lifetime. After all, it is difficult to find a passage where he claims he was a Messiah explicitly.

    There may be some reason to suppose that he indicated to his followers explicitly that he was a messiah, but in private.

    There is Matthew 19:28, where you have:

    "And Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."

    The "Son of Man" phrase here is a translation of the Aramaic phrase ben-Adam, I understand. Which means son of Adam - this Word presumably can be used to refer to any human being or mankind in general. Or could be an indefinite pronoun to mean "someone"?

    So he is saying, "When someone will sit on his glorious throne, you shall sit upon twelve thrones". Indicating that someone is coming to become a future King of Israel and we do not know who that is.

    My best hypothesis for who that "someone" could be is...Jesús himself. Why else would his closest disciples call him a King after his death - he must have given them that idea by him during his life? And why would they not if they thought they too would sit on those twelve other thrones in that lifetime? It seems he was promising them rulership of a new kingdom and them a special place in that kingdom.

    Besides, since the idea of a publicly humiliated and crucified Messiah did not exist prior to Christianity, the disciples must have gotten that idea of him being a Messiah prior to his death and alleged resurrection. Because the idea of declaring an already dead person a King seems....absurd?

    What do you think?

    1. Yes, Matthew 19:28 seems to be a messianic saying, but did Jesus say any such thing?

      You cannot put much faith in the historical value of the gospels. (on the phrase "son of man", see Michael Goulder, St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995).

      I suspect that Jesus probably thought of himself as the Messiah towards the end, though perhaps in private -- or at least gave people that impression.

      However, some people have argued that Jesus was only regarded as the Messiah after his death, see William Wrede, The Messianic Secret (trans. James C. G. Grieg), James Clarke & Co., Cambridge,: 1971.

      I know this seems very improbable, but perhaps stranger things have happened. E.g., the truly fanatical true believers people could have rationalised what happened in extraordinary ways.

  5. I am starting to read some links on Messianic Secret to get the basic gist of it, and it has some very profound implications.

    The Gospel of Mark (which contained the supposed command of secrecy) was presumably the oldest gospel. It is suggested that the author of this gospel introduced the element of secrecy to explain away the claim of Jesús being declared a Messiah and his ministry not being Messianic.

    This implies that for even early followers of Christianity - the seeming lack of messianic claim by Jesus was a huge problem (!). They recognized it openly and found troubles reconciling it.