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Christianity at the Start and Now

February 1, 2011

Some believe Christianity is in a kind of identity crisis today.  Or perhaps a growth crisis to keep up with changes in culture, science, etc.  I’m continuing the theme of my last post about how big Christianity’s original tent may have been.  My suggestion there was that there may actually have been no original tent which encompassed the variety of Jesus-following and Christian groups, either in the first century or for nearly 300 years after Jesus’ death. 

What do you think of this concept? Do you see at least this possibility in the pages of the New Testament, although it has not been an orthodox perception or interpretation? Do you see it further developed and reinforced if you are familiar with some of the early Jewish-Christian or Christian literature that was considered authoritative or “inspired” at the time but did not make it into the later-formed New Testament?  

I really would like your thoughts on these issues… I’m trying to understand Christian and non-Christian thinking on something that is not typically polled about.  Further, I believe it is foundational to much, much else and is intimately related to Christians today gaining clarity on what needs to be done to effectively guide Christian faith into a new, and hopefully more internally harmonious, mature phase.   

Here are a few of the issues involved in Christians’ typical lack of knowledge of the real origins of Christianity as it, in broad strokes, has been known for about 1700 years (since Constantine): 

Pop quiz for the day:

1. When did Christianity actually start? — During Jesus’ lifetime? Easter Sunday? Day of Pentecost 50 days later? After Peter’s vision of the sheet from heaven with clean and unclean animals? Paul’s conversion? Sometime later in Antioch or elsewhere?

2. Does question 1 really matter? If so, why? If not, why not?

3. Why do Paul’s accounts vary greatly from Luke’s in Acts on several vital matters including his “road to Damascas”  experience; his contact with, potential influence by, and contention with the Jerusalem “pillars” of James, John, and Peter (and unidentified “super apostles” and others); some kind of possible pronouncement (taken as definite by most Christians) by the “Jerusalem Council” reconciling differing theologies to widen the Jewish-Christian tent for Gentiles; etc.? (The list could be much longer.)  

4. If Paul, as he claims, did not consult “flesh and blood” in the theology he received, but yet claims some basics were indeed part of a “received” tradition (Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, particularly), from whom did he get these things and when, how? His version of these rituals is not consistent with Jewish practice and perhaps was not anything Jesus had instituted, nor perhaps Jesus’ earliest Jewish followers either. 

5. Why do Paul’s letters, clearly written well before the earliest of the Gospels, even according to conservative, traditional scholars, appear after all four of the canonical Gospels and Acts in our New Testament arrangement of books? Let’s grant that thematically this may make the best sense, but if so, what impressions are created by this arrangement, usually with no prominent notation about the chronology of Jewish Messianic (Jesus-following) and Christian writings?

There are many other important questions which, to my observation, the vast majority of Christians are ignorant about as to the real origins of their faith, and the implications of them, for Christian history up to the present, for Jewish-Christian relations and anti-semitism, etc.  Are we willing to backtrack a bit and do our homework to fill in these important gaps?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel permalink
    February 2, 2011 3:53 pm

    You know what really concerns me? While some may think they “believe in Jesus” what they are actually “believing in” is their Sunday School teacher or favorite Christian author. In reality, what we believe in only goes as far back as our assumptions carry us. If you assume that they are right, and you never question your pastor, Sunday School teacher or favorite author, then, what you believe in is THEM — not “Jesus.” They believe and teach a certain kind of Jesus — the “Jesus” that their teachers learned about from their teachers, ad infinitum. This is what lay at the bottom of the quest for the “historical Jesus,” one without “interpretations” tied to him. Can we ever get past the glass to the reality that lay beyond it? All real problems in theology are epistemological. As Daniel J. Boorstin has said: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance – it is the illusion of knowledge.”

    • Howard Pepper permalink
      February 2, 2011 9:23 pm

      Very thought-provoking comment, Daniel. I love the quote at the end. And I agree heartily with the rest of it, too. As to getting “past the glass to the reality that lay beyond it,” no, I doubt we can/will, or even that it is necessary, if you mean historical data or “facts.” If “pure” history were even possible to construct after the events, it would still need and get interpretation.

      There are things more important than unshakeable facts on the “historical” Jesus. Even if we had that (and I think all the massive efforts so far have been interesting but only minimally helpful), I think people would still do what they do heavily now: Use Jesus as a nearly-blank (with a few generally-agreed basic outlines) projection screen on which to project the ideals and theological concepts they prefer, grew up with, etc.

      Given this, realistically, we must work with existing traditions and theological structures to some extent, in our conversations, etc. — even those of us who are highly interested in understanding the real origins of Christian faith, Christian theology, and KNOW that myth, embellishment, and distortion is often taken as real history by the bulk of believers.

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