Ten myths about Early Christianity by Rudolph P Boshoff

  1. Early Christian beliefs were diverse.

 Myth: Early Christianity was composed of various beliefs and ‘orthodox’ Christianity won the day.

Fact: Meera Lester gives quite a compelling definition of the New Myth when she writes; “The Divergent ideas of early Christians suggest that birth and revolution of Christianity were fraught with dissension, disagreement and disharmony as the early church sought consensus on many issues.”[1] First, we can clearly see from the earliest data available that Christianity was aimed to be culturally diverse and succinctly uniform in its core beliefs (1Cor.15:1-11, Eph.4:4-5). Interestingly, Christianity was culturally diverse as Christ reveals His ultimate goal for His Disciples and commissions them to go to all nations and cultures yet, to remain unified under one ‘name’, Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt.28:19, Acts 1:8). Ben Witherington writes “to deny that the early church was united by a core belief system is a total misreading of the history of early Christianity”[2]. Current Christianity was the earliest Christianity!  

 

  1. The Early Christian community was without a canon.

Myth: Early Christian communities had no canon and therefore varied in their basic beliefs.

Fact: It is important to notice that the first Christians did have a canon! Prof. Darrel Bock writes; “Every scholar working with the New Testament in the early Christian movement accepts the fact that the Old Testament, or the Hebrew scripture, was the scripture of the earliest Christian movement”[3]. What is even more helpful is to understand that the earliest community was an oral community. R.V.G Tasker Professor of New Testament Exegesis at the University of London remarks that; “There were at least thirty five years of Christian teaching and Christian missionary activity before the believers were in possession of the written records of Christ’s life and teaching, which we know as the four Gospels”… “He adds “Our faith today is bound to be conditioned by the four Gospels. The faith of the earliest Christians was independent of them.”[4] Early Christians recited the words of Christ and their memories were independent of written forms. F.F. Bruce writes “The Gospel, that is to say, is contained in the canon, but is not coextensive with the canon. The canon, to adapt Luther’s metaphor, is the cradle in which the gospel is laid”[5]. Therefore, as for the central teaching of the Christian faith and the place of Christ in their frame of reference there seems to be little doubt as to what the earliest community believed and lived.

 

  1. The first Gospels were unnamed, therefore, they are unreliable.

Myth: The original autographs did not contain the name of their authors; therefore we can conclude that they are not reliable.

Fact: First we need to understand why these autographs could have been anonymous. Armin D. Baum writes that “Unlike the Greek or Roman historian who, among other things, wanted to earn praise and glory for his literary achievements from both his contemporaries and posterity, the history writer in the Ancient Near East sought to disappear as much as possible behind the material he presented and to become its invisible mouthpiece. By adopting the stylistic device of anonymity from Old Testament historiography the Evangelists of the New Testament implied that they regarded themselves as comparatively insignificant mediators of a subject matter that deserved the full attention of the readers. The anonymity of the Gospels is thus rooted in a deep conviction concerning the ultimate priority of their subject matter.”.[6] It’s incredible to think that Plutarch, Lucian, Porphyry, Plato ect. are never mentioned in one of their writings as the original authors, yet, we do not doubt the validity of Greek or Hellenic History? Evidence that the Gospels were written by its mentioned authors are quite extensive; for instance Justin Martyr (150a.d.) refers to the “memoirs of the Apostles” (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) sixteen times as well as other independent sources. Even more we have not one person from antiquity write “and the four letters are Matthew, Mark, Luke and Bob”?? No! Every time the four Gospels are affirmed as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! It is also noteworthy that there is no indication that these manuscripts were authored by anyone else and simply no evidence for it?

 

  1. The Early Church Fathers were Unitarian.

Myth: The Early Christian Fathers were purely Unitarian believing Jesus was God’s intermediary but not God in the Flesh.

Fact: This is simply not true, and often I find the demand of this viewpoint to fall short of the clear evidence. Unitarians sometimes downplay the use of the word ‘God’ when the earliest Fathers mention it about Jesus and even ignores the context of what they said. Here are just two noticeable examples of the explicit Christology of these Fathers. Polycarp and Ignatius (120-190 A.D.) taught the deity of Christ. Polycarp was “instructed” and “appointed” by the apostles, “conversed with many who had seen Christ,” “having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles,”[7] “the accounts which he gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life’.”[8] So his view of Jesus is very important. In The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, he mentions “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “our Lord and God Jesus Christ.”[9] Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal High Priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth and in all gentleness and in all freedom from anger and forbearance and steadfastness and patient endurance and purity, and may he give to you a share and a place among his saints, and to us with you, and to all those under heaven who will yet believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead.  Thus, Polycarp agrees with the teachings of the apostles that Jesus is God. Ignatius was the Bishop of Antioch at the same time Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna. He wrote seven letters to the Churches while en route to his execution in Rome around the year AD 110. In Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians 18:2 he states: For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan… In 19:3 he states: Consequently all magic and every kind of spell were dissolved, the ignorance so characteristic of wickedness vanished, and the ancient kingdom was abolished, when God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life… In 7:2 he states: There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord. And in 1:1: Being as you are imitators of God, once you took on new life through the blood of God you completed perfectly the task so natural to you. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans 1:1 over whom Polycarp was Bishop he states: I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise…”[10]. We can easily mention the foundational Fathers in the first four centuries and come to the estimation that they were not Unitarian but definitely Trinitarian!

  

  1. Jesus was declared God at the Council of Nicea.

Myth: In 325 A.D. the Emperor Constantine declared Jesus to be God at the Council of Nicea.

Fact: It’s been said if one tells a lie long enough, and hard enough, people will begin to believe it. The Nicene council was convened on the request of Hosius of Cordova when there seemed to have been a dispute about the place of the Son within the Godhead. Constantine heed to the suggestion for the sake of Unity within the Empire and called for a gathering of bishops in May and ended in late June in 325 AD. When Constantine became the Emperor, Fourteen years had gone by since Emperor Galerius brought an end to the persecutions. Many of the men who suffered for the name of Christ survived the persecution, and were now representatives at the Council of Nicaea. Constantine did not preside over the Council of Nicaea because of his age, (and because he had no theological knowledge), but was represented by two presbyters. Almost all the Council consisted of bishop’s (estimations of 300 or more) were from the eastern churches. There were less than a dozen bishops representing the rest of the Empire. What was debated was whether Christ was a created being which Arius was promoting, or that he was the same substance (Greek – “homoousia” as God being God) as Alexander proposed. The main concern was the link of Christ’s deity to salvation. Since God is the one who condemned (in Gen.3) He could only be the one to save. This was no small matter, not only Nicaea wass the deity of the Son at stake but his work in salvation. This explains that those who misunderstand the deity of Christ and his relationship to the father will also misunderstand how salvation is obtained.(Sound familiar). Philip Schaff comments on the Arian movement stating, “Arianism was a religious political war against the spirit of the Christian revelation by the spirit of the world, which, after, having persecuted the church three hundred years from without, sought under the Christian name to reduce her by degrading Christ to the category of the temporal and the created, and Christianity to the level of natural religion.”[11] Emperor Constantine’s Nicene Council is usually pointed to as the source for the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ and the Trinity, yet, the Trinity was present in the church long before Constantine. This leads Professor Larry Hurtado to write: “Well before the influence of Constantine and councils of bishops in the fourth century and thereafter, it was clear that proto-orthodox Christianity was ascendant, and presented an emergent mainstream. Proto-orthodox devotion to Jesus of the second century constitutes the pattern of belief and practice that shaped Christian tradition thereafter”[12].

 

  1. Constantine chose the books of the New Testament.

Myth: In 325 A.D. the Emperor Constantine determined which books must be in the New Testament Canon.

Fact: There is no historical affirmation of this assertion. In fact we see clearly that the New Testament books were seen as being inspired by God. The earliest Christian community therefore recognized its central place and discovered their significance. Author Tom Price writes. Contrary to what a lot of people think it isn’t the antiquity, authenticity or religious community that makes a book or letter part of the canon. A book is valuable because it is part of the canon, but it isn’t part of the canon because it is or was considered valuable. Its authority and place in the canon is established by God and merely discovered by God’s people. It’s really important to distinguish between the determination and the discovery of the canon. God is solely responsible for determining; God’s people are responsible for discovery. That a book is part of the canon is due to divine inspiration. How it is known to be part of the canon is due to a process of human recognition. Was a book (1) written by a spokesperson for God, (2) who was confirmed by an act of God, (3) told the truth (4) in the power of God and (5) was accepted by the people of God? If a book clearly had the first mark then its canonicity was often assumed”.[13]

 

  1. There were more Gospels than the four Gospels.

Myth: The Non-Canonical Gospels like Thomas, Peter, Egerton, and Mary are equally legitimate than the Four Canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Fact: The Golden rule when considering any work of antiquity is that the closer a document is written to the actual historical account, the more it is deemed reliable. That is the central issue of the vicarious Gospels written after the Four Canonical Gospels  Dr Bart D. Ehrman cautions us that; “[I]f historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons–for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple. . . . Moreover, the Gospel accounts outside the New Testament tend to be late and legendary, of considerable interest in and of themselves, but of little use to the historian interested in knowing what happened during Jesus’ lifetime. With the partial exceptions of the Gospels of Thomas and Peter, which even by the most generous interpretations cannot provide us with substantial amounts of new information, the only real sources available to the historian interested for the life of Jesus are therefore the New Testament Gospels.”[14].Prof Phillip Comfort affirms that “it is almost universally recognized that the Four Gospels were penned in the first century and that all others came in the second century or thereafter.. thus the authenticity of Jesus’ statements in the non-canonical Gospels should be judged by what we see in the canonical Gospels, not vice versa”.[15]

 

 

  1. The Trinity was first a pagan doctrine.

Myth: The Doctrine of the Trinity is a reduction of earliest forms of polytheism and paganism.

Fact: Without getting into many ways to show that the Christian Orthodox conception of God is the only consistent worldview Theologian Jürgen Moltmann gives a pretty good clue when he wrote “in the life of the immanent Trinity everything is unique. It is only because everything in God’s nature is unique that in the ways and works of God it can be recognized as the origin of other things…we can really only tell, relate, but not sum up.”[16] Defining God would mean that we are God. But in other articles I have shown quite extensively that the only true theism is Christian theism. Is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity deduced from Paganism? Theologian Bernard Lohse “First, it is important to note that the doctrine of the Trinity does not go back to non-Christian sources [pagan], as has sometimes been supposed in the past. There has been no lack of attempts to find the initial form of the doctrine of the Trinity in Plato, or in Hinduism, or in Parsiism. All such attempts may be regarded today as having floundered. It is another question, of course, whether or not the church, in developing the doctrine of the Trinity, had recourse to certain thought forms already present in the philosophical and religious environment, in order that, with the help of these, it might give its own faith clear intellectual expression. This question must definitely be answered in the affirmative. In particular cases the appropriation of this concept or that can often be proved. Unfortunately, however, it is true that particularly in reference to the beginnings of the doctrine of the Trinity there is still much uncertainty. In this area final clarity has not yet been achieved. As far as the New Testament is concerned, one does not find in it an actual doctrine of the Trinity. This does not mean very much, however, for generally speaking the New Testament is less intent upon setting forth certain doctrines than it is upon proclaiming the kingdom of God, a kingdom that dawns in and with the person of Jesus Christ. At the same time, however, there are in the New Testament the rudiments of a concept of God that was susceptible of further development and clarification, along doctrinal lines. … Speaking first of the person of Jesus Christ … In other passages of the New Testament the predicate “God” is without a doubt applied to Christ.”[17]

 

  1. Paul invented Christianity.

Myth: it was atheist Richard Dawkins that kicked at the shins of the roots of Christianity when he exclaimed “Christianity was founded by Paul of Tarsus”.[18]

Fact: David Wenham affirms “The evidence suggests that Jesus’ divinity was not a doctrine superimposed on the story of Jesus artificially by Paul or by anyone else; it was a conclusion that emerged from how people experienced Jesus during His ministry and from the experience of Jesus Himself”.[19] Even the Jewish Scholar Arnold Jacob Wolf affirms “One cannot any longer say that [Paul] was the founder of Christianity.”[20] Larry Hurtado writes; “Paul never indicates that the devotional claims and practices that he affirms and reflects in his letters represent anything innovative from him. Indeed, he insists that in these matters he and other Jewish Christians, including those of the very first years (perhaps months) in Roman Judea.”[21] We can confidently say that Luke the Historian shows clearly the message Paul preached was testified and affirmed by God (Acts 9:15-20;15:28;22:6-15) as well as the other disciples (Acts 9:26-29;10:34-40;13:46;15:4-8;17:18&31;21:18) and it was identical to the teaching of the First Apostles & Disciples of Christ. There is no confusion nor does any doubt that the witness Luke wrote about is concise and highly probable. And in conclusion we can be assured it is true.

 

  1. Early Christian persecution never really happened.

Myth: A recent book grants that the idea of a persecuted community is simply ludicrous and greatly exaggerated.[22]

Fact: There is very little doubt that Christianity was perceived as being a threat for both Jewish and Roman rulers. The Death of Stephen shows a growing tension in the earliest Jewish setting about this new sect (Acts 7:54-60). Peter even cautions the new found community to suffer well on Christ’s behalf (1 Pet.4:16) and the author of Hebrews mentioned the glories of expected hardship (Heb.11:35b-38). Jesus mentioned that Christians will be hated and persecuted for His name sake (Matt.10:16-23) and affirms that the world will hate the Christian community (John 15:18-27). Even though Rome was not much concerned with new deities the early second century the Roman governor of Bithynia (on the Black Sea) had no hesitation in sending to immediate execution those who had been denounced as being Christians. The name alone was a sufficient death warrant. Nero blamed the Jewish sect for the displeasure of the gods maintaining they set Rome alight which immediately meant persecution. Even in 112 A.D., Pliny, a Roman lawyer, was sent by the emperor Trajan (98–117) to Bithynia to restore rule back to this community. He recounts that Christians were executed immediately on their profession of faith.[23] We can go on and on and even though History show that the reason for their persecution were vast, we cannot deny that the earliest Christ communities did experience persecution! Even though it was sometimes conditional, regional and even as a result of false information, we can surely affirm they were tortured and killed because they identified themselves as followers of Christ.

Hope all these points were enjoyable! Please feel free to add your own ‘Myth’ to the list!

Selah.

Rudolph P Boshoff.     

 

 

[1] The Everything Gnostic Gospel book. A complete guide to the secret gospels. Adams Media 2007.

[2] The Jesus Quest. The third search for the Jew of Nazareth. Pg. 120. Inner Varsity Press.

[3] Bock D. www.EhrmanProject.com. “With no scripture in place, what controlled doctrine in the 1st century” (edited)

[4] Tasker R.V.G. The Nature and purpose of the Gospels. Pg.9.

[5] The Canon of Scripture. Pg. 272-273.

[6] A. D. Baum, „Anonymity in the New Testament History Books. A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”, Novum Testamentum 50 (2008) 120-142

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:4.

[8] Eusebius in Eccesiastical History, 4:14

[9] Polycarp, Philippians 12:2.

[10] Mike Licona Source: http://www.bethinking.org/resources/the-early-church-fathers-on-jesus.htm

[11] Schaff and Wace, Nicene and post Nicene fathers, vol.4 p.385, Against the Arians ii 70

[12] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand rapids:Eerdman’s,2003) Pg. 561

[13] Tom Price Source: http://www.bethinking.org/resources/quotwho-chose-the-books-of-the-biblequot.htm

[14] Bart Ehrman, “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings,” Fourth Ed. (New York: OUP, 2008), 229

[15] The Many Gospels of Jesus Pg.xii.

[16] The Trinity and the Kingdom. Pg. 190).

[17] A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p37-39

[18] The God delusion Pg.58.

[19] David Wenham :Did Saint Paul get Jesus right? Pg. 146

[20] Arnold Jacob Wolf : Jesus as an Historical Jew, Judaism 46:377

[21] Larry Hurtado: How on earth did Jesus Become God Pg.36.

[22]https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062104527/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0062104527&linkCode=as2&tag=httpwwwuncred-20

[23] http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-27/persecution-in-early-church-did-you-know.html

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