WE PAUSE IN our look at Rubenstein’s best-selling book, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, and in our re-packaging of his account of how the Church in her 4th century worked out her “orthodoxy.”
By buying into Paul’s “gospel of Jesus Christ,” which ingeniously appealed to the pagan mind, the Church departed from Jesus’ own straightforward message. The writings of Paul became a substantial part of the emerging Church’s holy book, the “New Testament.” Together with the “Old Testament (= the Hebrew Bible), the New Testament formed the Christian Bible. Here is what the Muslim needs to know for understanding the formation of Christian “canon“—as it relates to the story of shaping “orthodoxy.”
Preserving the Words of Jesus
The New Testament—as it came to be accepted by the 4th century Church Synods/ Councils—in nowise claimed to be from the hand of Prophet Jesus. Its purported link to Jesus and his genuine Disciples/”Apostles” is indeed weak when stacked up against the apparatus of our Science of Hadith.
The Christian movement in the Greco-Roman world needed an officially agreed upon and marked out scripture if it was to gain status next to the privileged Jewish community with its respectable, ancient Book, i.e., the Hebrew Bible. The Church thus gathered together the multitude of texts claiming to narrate the story of Jesus—as well as those claiming to reveal the Christ. Sorting through this collection of documents, she authorized a “canon” of texts she believed to have “provenance” from the official Apostles of Jesus. This canon would comprise the volume needed to establish the Church as the dominant universal religious force in the Roman arena.
It was Jesus alone who claimed to have conveyed “God’s words,” God’s message and judgments— explicitly on the authority of God, Who had sent him:× References for John 17:6
Bible, Gospel of John 5:30 “I can do nothing on my own authority; I judge only as God tells me, so my judgment is right, because I am not trying to do what I want, but only what he who sent me wants.
Bible, Gospel of John, 8:28 So he said to them, “… then you will know that I do nothing on my own authority, but I say only what the Father has instructed me to say.
Bible, Gospel of John 12:48-49 “…Whoever rejects me and does not accept my message has one who will judge him. The words I have spoken will be his judge on the last day! This is true, because I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has commanded me what I must say and speak. … What I say, then, is what the Father has told me to say.”
In his prayer concerning what would be the coming plight of his Disciples in his absence, Jesus voiced his concerns to God:
Bible, Gospel of John 17:6-8 “I have revealed youa1 to those whom you gave me2 out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me3 and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you,4 and they believed that you sent me.
To the extent that the New Testament reports the message and words of Jesus, we can say that the Gospel narrative books of the New Testament contain some of God’s revealed words spoken prophetically through Jesus. What about the other parts of the New Testament?
Paul and Barnabas
Paul did not claim to speak God’s words as such or to transmit them on the authority of having heard them from Jesus—though he did claim to have received a vision in which the risen-from-death Jesus spoke to him from heaven! As we have previously mentioned repeatedly, the outsider Paul, a self-proclaimed “apostle,” had never met Jesus in the flesh and he had even spurned contact with Jesus’ actual, personally-mentored Apostles—just as that non-conformist, innovator Paul himself says when he writes to his own followers in the Asia Minor region of Galatia:
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 1:15-19; 2:1-2, 5-6, 8-9, 11, 13 But God in his grace chose me even before I was born, and called me to serve him… I did not go to anyone for advice, nor did I go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me … It was three years later that I went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Peter, and I stayed with him for two weeks. I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s brother. …
Fourteen years later I went back to Jerusalem with Barnabas… In a private meeting with the leaders I explained the gospel message that I preach to the Gentiles. I did not want my work in the past or in the present to be a failure. …
…but in order to keep the truth of the gospel safe for you, we did not give in to them for a minute. But those who seemed to be their leaders—I say this because it makes no difference to me what they were…
For by God’s power I was made an apostle to the Gentiles, just as Peter was made an apostle to the Jews. James, Peter and John, who seemed to be the leaders…
But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong. … The other Jewish brothers also started acting like cowards along with Peter; and even Barnabas was swept along by their cowardly action…
Barnabas was the individual who had trustingly taken Paul (= Saul) under his own wing, when Paul purportedly converted to the Jesus movement—even after Paul had established a reputation of severely persecuting and attempting to kill Jesus’ followers (Acts of the Apostles 8:1-3). In the end, even Barnabas quit Paul (Acts 15:39)—overtly over a minor issue.
In spite of Paul’s presumptuous, self-lauded authority, it was his prolific, ingenious writings that were opportunely available to become the Church’s definitive interpretation of Jesus as the “Christ.” This promotion of Paul in the Church’s eyes, in effect, demoted Jesus’ Twelve Disciples, rendering them tame historical curiosities next to the avant-guard theology and bold charisma of Paul.
Paul, Not Jesus!
Paul did not carry on the message of Jesus, contrary to what the Church has presumed. Rather, Paul created his own theological brand (subsequently called “Christianity“), adopting and adapting the story of Jesus. Paul’s theology was called the “Gospel of Jesus Christ.” His followers were called “Christians“—meaning: “those who worship God in, by, and through [Jesus] Christ—not apart from him,” or, “those who call upon [Jesus] Christ.”
In contrast, the followers of Jesus had been called “Nazarenes” and his teaching was called the “Gospel of the Kingdom of God.” Jesus is presented in the Gospel narrative books of the New Testament as someone who considered himself a prophet, the Hebrew messiah. This differs radically from Paul’s presentation of a divine partner “Christ,” whose personal sacrificial death was said to bring “salvation” to his followers. (the reader may want to revisit Parts 1-7.)
Paul and Timothy
Today’s “Evangelical” Christian commonly quotes the following passage from Paul as evidence that the New Testament documents are revealed, or, “inspired” words to be attributed to God. The relevant phrases (italicized) are embedded within Paul’s words of encouragement to his half-Jewish, junior preacher Timothy:
Bible, The Second Letter of Paul to Timothy, 3:14-17: But as for you, continue in the truths that you were taught and firmly believe. You know who your teachers were, and you remember that ever since you were a child, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed.
The personal importance of the youthful star protégé Timothy to Paul is indicated by the fact that Paul addresses Timothy by name in nine of his 13 writings: Romans 16:21; 1 Corinthians 4:17, 16:10; 2 Corinthians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, 2:19; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 1 Timothy 1:1, 18; 2 Timothy 1:2; Philemon 1:1. Timothy is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles 16:1-5, 18:5, 20:4 and in Hebrews 13:23.
Although there was no “New Testament” official collection of Scripture until centuries after the time when Paul wrote these verses, today’s Christians regularly quote the above passage as a proof text that the totality of New Testament writings, including the Letters of Paul, are “God’s Word”—meaning that they are somehow of divinely revealed/inspired provenance. The “Holy Scriptures” to which Paul refers in the above passage could have applied to nothing other than to the Jewish Scriptures of the time! The Hebrew Bible in its Christian equivalent of what is now called the “Old Testament.” In fact, Christians—anachronistically!—generalize this proof text to apply to the whole New Testament.
Paul and Luke
Two major New Testament books, whose authorship is ascribed to someone known as “Luke“—composed later than the works of Paul—claim to be “orderly accounts” of previous reports and interviews from eye witnesses—but not “inspired by God” nor “revealed by God”:
Bible, Gospel according to Luke, 1:1-4: Dear Theophilus: Many people have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us. They wrote what we have been told by those who saw these things from the beginning and who proclaimed the message. And so, Your Excellency, because I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning, I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you. I do this so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught.
Bible, Acts of the Apostles, 1:1-2: Dear Theophilus: In my first book I wrote about all the things that Jesus did and taught from the time he began his work until the day he was taken up to heaven. Before he was taken up, he gave instructions by the power of the Holy Spirit to the men he had chosen as his apostles.
We continue, inshâ’Allah, in Part 18…