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Monday, July 3, 2017

The Development of the Christian Creed

This is a continuation of the previous blog dated 19 May. That blog was concerned with how the Christian religion and scripture originated, which you can read here: The Origins

This blog is concerned with the conflicting beliefs espoused by people who eventually emerged victorious over fellow Christians holding different views from their own. What Jesus actually said or preached is now lost in mists of antiquity, the NT having become a repository of the victors' inconsistent views.

The Messiah or a Reforming Prophet?

Paul’s writings pre-date the four Gospels. Paul wrote some 40-50 yeas after Jesus’ death while the four Gospels appeared during the succeeding 50 years, written by scribes who relied on oral traditions. Paul’s views are at odds with the accounts in the Gospels as well as in the book of Acts, written by the author of the Gospel of Luke. Paul introduced the splendid idea of Jesus being offered up by God as a sacrifice for the sins committed by others! Apparently, people never questioned the injustice and gullibility inherent in this claim of vicarious sacrifice. People were mesmerised by the idea that a mere belief in Jesus, the crucified Messiah, was enough to "save" them and it also freed them of the need to follow Jewish Law. At a stroke, the Jewish Law became irrelevant: the only way to wash away your sins was through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus!

The scribe who wrote the Gospel of Matthew some 25-30 years after Paul, flatly contradicted him by asserting that the followers of Jesus needed to keep the Jewish Law!

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfil. ……….Therefore whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments ………. Will be called least in the kingdom of heaven …….. For I tell you , unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

Paul, however, was quite clear that whoever followed this alleged exhortation of Jesus was in danger of losing his/her "salvation". What one book of the NT lays down in strong terms is contradicted equally strongly in another book! The fact that both views exist in the same scripture makes a mockery of the NT: if one part of the scripture is correct then another part cannot be. If there is a devout Christian who believes in both Paul and Matthew simultaneously then he/she needs to have his/her sanity tested. 

To the early Christians known as the Ebionites, Paul was the arch-enemy with his convoluted ideas of Jesus’ death and resurrection: "salvation" came only from Jesus’s death. Put simply, Paul transformed the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus. The Pauline dogma was also opposed by Jesus' brother James, leader of the Church in Jerusalem, who accepted Jesus as a reforming Prophet sent to regenerate the moribund Jewish religion. Within a century, however, the followers of Jesus had turned Christianity into a distinct anti-Jewish religion.Paul’s anti-Jewish stance was mild compared to the views expressed in various Gospels which did not make it into the canon authorised by Emperor Constantine. Even the canonical Gospel of John has Jesus declare the Jews to be the “children of the Devil” (John 8:42-44). 

The conflicting Gospels

It is thought that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, around 65-70 CE. Both Matthew and Luke, writing 15-20 years later, used Mark as one of their sources, hence these three are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels. This is the reason why almost all of Mark’s parables and stories can be found in Matthew or Luke, though some of them were changed to emphasise certain points that Matthew or Luke thought important. For example, Jesus’ death is described differently in Mark and Luke. In Mark he is a terrified man led to his death (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”) but in Luke he is a fearless, benevolent and sagacious man unconcerned about his own impending death (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”).

If Mark is to be believed, Jesus had already announced the end of evil times and the onset of Kingdom of God: “The time has been fulfilled; the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Two thousand years later we still await the establishment of that kingdom of truth, peace and justice by the “Son of Man” even though, according to Mark, Jesus blurted out: “Truly I tell you, some of those standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come in power” (Mark 9:1). [Apparently, “Son of Man” is a reference to the second appearance of Jesus on earth after he has died and is resurrected and becomes, in some sense, “Son of God” as well!]

John’s Gospel, written much later than the other three, is quite different from the Synoptic Gospels. There is no mention of the virgin birth or any details of Jesus’s early life. This Gospel wrestles with the theological issues which sharply divided the Christian communities a hundred years after Jesus’s death. It talks about the mystical Word of God, that existed in the very beginning, was itself God and through it God created the universe, and eventually became a human being, namely, Jesus [“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory” (1:14)]. The miracles Jesus performs in John are referred to as “Signs” of one come down from heaven to give eternal life to those who believe in him. This is reinforced with many “I am” sayings attributed to Jesus: “I am the bread of life”, “I am the light of the world”, “I am the resurrection and the life”, etc. Unlike the parables in Mark, we are assailed with long speeches by Jesus!

The idea of a Kingdom of God on earth is an alien concept in John! To John “Kingdom of God” exists in “heaven”, not on earth, and believers in Jesus will reside there with God for ever; others will be condemned. No mention here of the “Son of Man” to establish God’s Kingdom on earth! John’s Gospel was written towards the end of the first century CE, by which time the entire generation addressed by Jesus had died without witnessing Jesus’ prophecy of Kingdom of God come true! So, what does the anonymous scribe of the Gospel of John does? Easy. He creates a Kingdom of God in heaven, not on earth! Is it possible to retain one’s sanity and still be able to make sense of John’s convoluted theology?

The early Christians, who had access only to Mark’s Gospel, would have known nothing about the unusual birth of Jesus, being born of a virgin, or that he existed before his appearance on earth. With the appearance of Matthew’s Gospel many years later, the Christian dogma expanded to include the idea of Jesus’ mother being a virgin. Then, with Luke, Jesus also acquired the status of “Son of God”, who is vaguely of divine origin, his mother having been impregnated with The Holy Spirit. (Luke 1:35) explains what Mary learnt from the angel Gabriel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God”. At this stage in the development of Christian dogma, Jesus was created when he was born. The idea of him having existed before his earthly life came later with John.

The Divinity of Jesus and the dogma of Trinity

While the Old Testament is all about the Jewish Prophets, the New Testament revolves around a single controversial personality. Until you get to the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as a “son” in much the same way that the Old Testament prophets are, that is, as someone close to God. I have lost count of the number of “sons”, “begotten sons” and “firstborns” mentioned in the OT.

One of the earliest Christian sects, the Ebionites, were quite clear on the matter of divinity: since there can be only One God, Christ is not God. For Christ to be God, there had to be two gods: Jesus was a human Messiah, adopted by God to be his “son”, but he was a man from first to last, not a divine being.

Then there was another early sect, followers of Marcion, who believed in two Gods, the wrathful God of the OT and the God of Jesus, the God of love and mercy. Still others believed in multiple divine beings and they had no difficulty in accepting Jesus as divine.

Over the succeeding 300 years, Chiristianity evolved, rejecting much of the early dogma as heretical. The essential dilemma was: can Christianity remain a monotheistic religion while accepting Jesus as a deity? Eventually, the dogma of Trinity was invented and all opposing views were declared heretical. Tertullian, a noted heresy hunter, declared some 200 years after Jesus’s death:

“The Father is one, and the Son is one, and the Spirit is one …. they are distinct from one another …. The Father is not the same as the Son, since they differ one from the other in the mode of their being.” Having established that the three are distinct, Tertullian then declares: “they are not different in substance though they are different personalities”. That, in a nutshell, is the dogma of the Unity of the Trinity: All three are God manifested in three different personalities!

Tertullian’s convoluted arguments were debated and refined over the following hundred years as people wrestled with the nature of the relationship between Father and Son. In the fourth century the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and set about unifying the religion, which could then be used to unify his fractured empire. In 325 CE the famous Council of Nicaea was held, attended by the most important bishops and priests in the empire, where the final form of the Christian religion in the Roman empire was at last established, with its central dogma of Trinity:

All three persons in the Godhead are eternal beings and they had always existed. They are three but they are One because they are of the same substance!

All those mind-bending arguments are now forgotten, pious Christians quietly accept the dogma of Trinity spun by the theologians, some 200-300 years after the death of Jesus.

Does the New Testament support the dogma of Trinity?

There does not seem to be an explicit statement of Trinity in the NT, not even in the Gospel of John where Jesus is clearly referred to as being divine. The later Christians found such exclusion from their scriptures unnerving. Ehrman says that a specific reference to the Trinity was accordingly inserted ( John 5:7-8):

"For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these are one.
And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one."

Make of it what you will!

 Ehrman has written a separate book about changes made to the Bible in the first 300 years after Jesus: “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”.

Conclusion

Ehrman: “Jesus’s divinity was part of John’s theology, not a part of Jesus’s own teaching".

Although the Christians of Rome won in the end, insisting their beliefs to be ‘orthodox’, it was not the original form of religion conveyed by Jesus and his apostles. The 4th century Nicene Creed claimed Jesus to be “fully God and fully man”, and also that he was “begotten not made, of one substance with the Father”. Neither claim was made by the disciples or apostles of Jesus! Such obtuse theology made its appearance a hundred years or more after the death of Jesus.

There have been numerous archaeological discoveries, comprising ancient scrolls dating back to the first 200 years CE. None of these support the view considered “orthodox” by the established church and accepted without question by a majority of Christians. Those discoveries are simply “heretical” compared to the “orthodox” dogma. Texts in favour of “orthodox” dogma have never been found!

Jesus is supposed to have died, or crucified according to orthodox belief, around 30 CE.


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