Just Who Was Jesus? An Exploration of Early Christianity

Over the past few months, I’ve been rereading some of the Bart Ehrman books on my shelf, as well as reading some new ones. Ehrman is a religious studies professor at the Chapel Hill well known for writing popular books that make scholarly understandings of the New Testament and early Christianity available to a lay audience. While reading his Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, I came upon two points that struck me as particularly interesting, and I thought I’d take a moment to share them.

The first comes in a discussion of early Christians who believed individuals must become Jewish (observing the Jewish law and being circumcised) to be Christian. This was possibly the majority view at one time, and Acts records a council that was called in Jerusalem to address this matter. In the book of Galatians, Peter writes of disagreement over this issue with Peter and James. All of this I knew. Ehrman goes a step further, though, suggesting that Matthew may have been written by a proponent of this view.

As Ehrman explains on pages 98-99:

…whereas only Paul’s account of his confrontation with Peter and the Judaizing missionaries of Galatia survives, at one time numerous positions were represented. Even though most of the others have been lost, it is possible that not all of them have been. A close reading of our surviving sources shows that one of our Gospels, at least, appears to represent an alternative point of view.

With good reason, Matthews Gospel is frequently thought of as the most “Jewish” of the Gospels of the new Testament. This account of Jesus’ life and death goes to extraordinary lengths to highlight the Jewishness of Jesus. … Time and again it quotes the Jewish Scriptures to show that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent from the Jewish God in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures (cf. Matt. 1:23, 2:6, 18). Not only does Jesus fulfill the scriptures here (a pint Paul himself would have conceded); Matthew also insists, contrary to Paul, that Jesus followers must do so as well. In one of the most trenchant statements of the Gospel, found only in this Gospel in the New Testament, Jesus is recorded as saying:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-20). 

For Matthew, the entire Jewish Law needs to be kept, down to the smallest letter. The Pharisees, in fact, are blamed not for keeping the law but for not keeping it well enough. It is worth noting that in this Gospel, when a rich man comes to Jesus and asks him how to have eternal life, Jesus tells him that if he wants to live eternally he must keep the commandments (19:17).

I knew that Matthew was considered the most Jewish of the gospels. I learned in church and Bible club, growing up in an evangelical family, that Matthew wrote his gospel as part of outreach to the Jews. Paul was a missionary to the gentiles; Matthew, in contrast, laced his account with quotes from the Jewish scriptures because he was writing to other Jews. I was also aware that the passage from Matthew 5 quoted above read a bit oddly, and I found it slightly odd that Jesus told the young rich man to keep the commandments; I was taught, by way of making sense of these passages, that these were Jesus’ way of emphasizing humans’ inability to reach this standard on their own, without his sacrifice.

When I was an evangelical, I understood that the authors of different books of the New Testament had their own particular perspectives and things they wanted to emphasize. We drew the line, however, on the authors of these various books actually disagreeing with each other. I read the New Testament straight through probably twenty times, but each time I read it through I did so on the assumption that each book was inspired by God, and that they thus could not be in conflict. Any perceived contradictions or oddities were simply explained away.

Ehrman offers a different perspective. He suggests that we should not assume that the authors of these various books agreed with each other, or that their accounts can be harmonized. And here, he suggests that the book of Matthew may not merely have been intended for the Jews; instead, it may be intended for a community of Christians who believed that one must become Jewish in order to be a Christian (and we know that such communities existed). Jesus’ statements no longer need to be explained away. They suddenly make perfect sense.

Of course, Ehrman is not the first to make this suggestion. Instead, this understanding of Matthew is well known in scholarly circles.

What about the second point I wanted to share? This passage is shorter, a mere interpolation in a discussion of a group known as the Ebionites. From pages 100 and 101:

The Ebionites did not subscribe to the notion of Jesus preexistence or his virgin birth. These ideas were originally distinct from each other. The two New Testament Gospels that speak of Jesus being conceived of a virgin (Matthew and Luke) do not indicate that he existed prior to his birth, just as the New Testament books that appear to presuppose his preexistence (cf. John 1:1-3, 18; Phil. 2:5-11) never mention his virgin birth. But when all these books came to be included in the New Testament, both notions came to be affirmed simultaneously, so that Jesus was widely thought of has having been with God in eternity past (John, Paul) who became flesh (John) by being born of the Virgin Mary (Matthew and Luke).

I already knew from reading another of Ehrman’s books that the two accounts of the virgin birth—those in Matthew and Luke—are not compatible. I hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that the doctrine of the virgin birth and the doctrine of Jesus’ preexistence were separate and not naturally compatible. The pagan world, after all, had plenty of stories of mortal women who were impregnated by the gods; their children were never considered to have preexisted before their conception.

That the early Christians were very divided on who Jesus was, and ultimately on the nature of his divinity, is evident in the fact that the question of whether Jesus was the same in substance with the Father, or a lesser being, was not settled until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Ehrman’s point that the Virgin Birth and Jesus preternatural existence do not naturally go hand in hand was something I had not considered.

I’m reminded of passage that struck me in another Ehrman book that I read recently, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. This passage discusses the evolution of early Christian understandings of Jesus; it is a bit longer than the previous sections I have quoted, but just as interesting. From pages 110-112:

One of the most striking features of several of the speeches in Acts is that they present a view of Jesus that scholars have long thought was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Christian understanding of what it meant to call Jesus the Son of God. Eventually, of course, Christians came to think that Jesus had always been the Son of God, from eternity past, and that he came into the world only to conduct his miraculous ministry and deliver his supernatural teachings for a short while before returning to heaven whence he came. this is the view that can be found in the last of our Gospels, the Gospel of John. But this was not the earliest view of Jesus. Before anyone thought Jesus preexisted as the divine being who created the world (see John 1:1-18, for example), there were Christians who thought Jesus came into existence when he was born of a virgin and that it was because she was a virgin—and the “father” was God himself—that he was the Son of God.

This view seems to be embodied in the Gospel of Luke itself. Not a single word in Luke mentions Jesus preexisting his life on earth. Instead, his mother conceives of the Holy Spirit, and that is ho the comes into being. As the angel Gabriel tells Mary at the Annunciation, informing her of how she will bear a child: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. For that reason the one who is born of you will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35). Here Jesus is the Son of God because God made his mother pregnant.

At an even earlier stage of the tradition, before Christians had begun to talk about either Jesus’s persistence or his virginal conception, they (or some of them) believed that he had become the Son of God by being “adopted” by God to be his son. In this view Jesus was not metaphysically or physically the son of God. He was the son of God in a metaphorical sense, through adoption. At one point Christians thought this happened right before he entered into his public ministry. And so they told stories about what happened at the very outset, when he was baptized by John: the heavens opened up, the Spirit of God descended upon him (meaning he didn’t have the Spirit before this), and the voice from heaven declared, “You are my son. Today I have begotten you.” One should not underplay the significance of the word today in this quotation from Psalm 2. It was on the day of his baptism that Jesus became God’s son.

There were yet earlier traditions about Jesus that did not speak of him as the Son of God from eternity past or from his miraculous birth or from the time he began his ministry. In these, probably the oldest, Christian traditions, Jesus became the Son of God when God raised him from the dead. It was then that God showered special favor on the man Jesus, exalting him to heaven, and calling him his son, the messiah, the Lord. Even though this view is not precisely that of Paul, it is found in an ancient creed (that is, a pre literary tradition) that Paul quotes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans, where he speaks of Christa s God’s “son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness at his resurrection from the dead” (1:3-4). One reason for thinking that this is an ancient creed—not the formulation of Paul himself—is that Paul holds other ideas about Jesus as the Son of God and expresses them in his own words elsewhere. But he quotes this crude here, probably because he is writing this letter to get on the good side of a group of Christians, the church in Rome, who do not know Paul or what he stands for, and the creed provides a standard formulation found throughout the churches of his day. It is, in other words, a very ancient tradition that predates Paul’s writings.

More striking still, a similar tradition can be found in some of the speeches in Acts, showing that these speeches incorporate materials from the traditions about Jesus that existed long before Luke put pen to papyrus. So, For example, in a speech attributed to Paul in Acts 13 (but not really by Paul; Luke wrote the speech, incorporating easier materials), Paul is reputed to have said to a group of Jews he was evangelizing, “We proclaim to you that the good news that came to the fathers, this he has brought ot fulfillment for us their children by raising Jesus, as it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you'” (Acts 13:32-33).

Note once again the word today. it was on the day of the resurrection, according to this primitive tradition that long predated Luke, that Jesus was made the Son of God. A comparable view is found in an earlier speech delivered by the apostle Peter: “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty, that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this one whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

In other words, the very earliest Christians believed that Jesus was adopted by God at his resurrection; later Christians believed that he was adopted by God at the beginning of his public ministry; and still later Christians believed that Jesus was the Son of God because God made his mother, Mary, pregnant. It was only after this that early Christians came to believe that Jesus preexisted his time on this earth, and, ultimately, that Jesus was of the same substance with God, an equal member of the Trinity (another belief that did not exist until later).

I know this is starting to sound like an infomercial for Ehrman, but I promise I’m not getting any kickbacks. I suppose it’s just that I’m excited to see the New Testament make sense. Everything that I ever found odd or confusing, or that I had to work to harmonize, is explained when the New Testament is approached not as an inerrant, divinely inspired collection of books but rather a collection of books written by various individuals who often disagreed, during thehard-fought early years of a new and developing religion whose theology was still in flux.

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