Mainline Christians today speak of the One God as consisting of three ‘persons’: ‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Holy Spirit’—a doctrinal explanation hammered out by the institutional Church but found nowhere as such in Christian Scriptures. How is it that a major Christian doctrine can fail to be clearly stated in source documents?!!!
This “Trinitarian” doctrine is a basic and official tenant of faith, propounded since early centuries, an explication taught to Christian adherents worldwide by Church-authorized teachers. How is this Trinitarian formula not a belief in three ‘God’s?
What did Jesus mean, as recorded in the Gospel books of the New Testament, when he called God his ‘Father’ and when he referred to himself as ‘son’ in relation to his Father? What was the meaning of ‘holy spirit’ for Jesus—and what is its meaning now for Christians? These questions, and their derivative corollary questions, were all part of Christian intellectual history, in fact a big part, from the early centuries. In a real sense, they remain looming enigmas for the majority of reflective Christian adherents today. What is behind such issues and why did they arise?
In Part 2, we begin our look at some underlying issues that are Ground Zero for understanding the above skewed beliefs as they developed, and the actual intention of the words of Jesus (A.S).
WHAT WOULD JESUS SAY?
WE CLOSED DISCUSSION of Part 1 by asking the above questions. These are all difficulties that have repeatedly resurfaced in Church history and are still brought up today. This kind of ferment is the background for Dr. James D. G. Dunn’s exposition in his book, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence.
So to follow, step-by-step, Dunn’s struggle with this challenging paradox, we pick up again (from Part 1) and tag along with his process of inquiry. The author cautions Christians against a quick answer to the question: “Did the first Christians worship Jesus?”—in view of certain facts:
…the New Testament also includes accounts of Jesus himself rebuking the thought that anyone might be worshipped other than God (p. 2).
…an unavoidable question arises: “Would Jesus himself have welcomed his being confessed equal with God?” (p. 3)
THE PRESENCE OF PAUL
On the other side of the scale, so to speak, the author warns us of the critical complicating factor, ‘the elephant-in-the-room,’ to use modern parlance:
…a noticeable feature in [Paul’s] letters is his regular reference to Jesus as Lord, where, as we shall see, the title most obviously avers a divine status for Jesus…. (p. 3)
Hmmm, Paul? Paul is the main proponent of the ‘Christian’ message in the Christian scripture, the New Testament, even though he was not one of the Disciples individually ‘called’ and mentored by Jesus, those who had personally sat and been taught at the feet of Jesus. Nor was Paul subsequently commissioned by any one of those Disciples as an authoritative representative of the mission project given them by Jesus.
Yet amazingly, Paul is the foremost among the few authors of the canonical [i.e., historically accepted] New Testament documents who has an unquestionably certified identity as direct writer of certain parts of Christian scripture. Why, you might ask, do Christians then give credence to Paul when his presence in Christian Scripture is acknowledged to have introduced a glitch in preserving the teaching of Jesus?
To this inconvenient observations one Churchman once gave me this simple, straightforward answer: “Because Paul is there [in the New Testament]”! In other words, this paradoxical question is a consequence born of the Church‘s own making when they chose to put Paul’s writings into the New Testament. As a result the Church, and thus Christians, must listen to Paul’s voice.
Why did they put Paul there? Because the Church had already listened to him as authoritative. But why had they already listened to Paul—someone who had never met Jesus?
Was it perhaps because other, more suitable document choices were not available in the fourth century of the Christian Era when the Church was officially approving the “canon” of sorely needed Christian Scripture? Did Jesus’ Disciples leave no writings to contradict Paul and to set the record straight? (Answer in next section) After all, Paul had been a prolific writer with his finger on the spiritual pulse of his Graeco-Roman age, even if he didn’t represent the Hebrew teaching of Jesus.
Was Paul simply an egotistical opportunist who took advantage of a vacuum left in the Jesus reform movement [by the disappearance of Jesus] and who succeeded in redirecting its course with himself at the stern?
FINALIZING THE CANON
By “more suitable document choices” I mean writings from the hand of Jesus—of which we possess no documents so claimed, nor do we have [in the ancient literature] references to any writings claiming to be from Jesus’ own hand. Or, as a last resort, suitable writings would be, at the least, those from the hand of Jesus’ officially called and personally mentored Disciples. Here is the situation in this regard:
- The New Testament contains two Epistles [letters] claiming to be from the chief Disciple Peter—the first of which modern scholars believe to be authentic. The NT also contains three short epistles of the Disciple John, of which the second and third have been questioned for authenticity. We also have the epistle from James, the “brother” of Jesus, which is accepted as authentic; however, it should be noted that brother James is a different person from the Disciple James [brother of John] mentioned in the Gospel accounts.
Brother James became head of the Jerusalem-based followers of Jesus—after the “Crucifixion Event” [which I discuss and evaluate elsewhere], meaning after Jesus’ departure from among his followers. This community leadership and family relationship presumably give “brother” James authenticity in speaking for Jesus, especially since we know that the mentored Disciples had been expressly sent out from Jerusalem by Jesus himself in order for them to spread their Master’s teaching to the Jewish Diaspora.
- Regarding the Gospel books of the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew has strongly witnessed connections in the early literature with the Disciple Matthew and so does the Gospel of Mark with the Disciple Peter. While Matthew and Peter are not understood to have personally written or dictated the writing of their Gospels, still they are understood to “stand behind” what was written in terms of oral traditions that had originated from their eye-witness accounts and were being passed on as authentic collections (probably as individual narrative event segments) from Matthew and Peter, respectively. In the case of Peter the composition was said to come through the intermediary of Mark, Peter’s assistant.
The identity of the author of the Gospel of Luke as possibly connected to Jesus is completely missing. It is to be assumed that the Disciple John was the same John who authored the Gospel of John; on the other hand, it is not certain that it was the Disciple John who was behind the visionary Apocalypse of John [more commonly called the “Revelation to John” or “Revelations”].
At best, we can say no more than that the seemingly most “sure” documents, as found in today’s New Testament and claiming to be from the hand of actual Disciples of Jesus, are gathered together in the same New Testament with documents of questionable dependability. Dependability must be measured by the yardstick of simply giving priority—or better, exclusive ear—to the eye-witnessed story and teaching of Jesus himself.
The situation is actually very dire: Refusing to learn from the Disciples their eye-witnessed account (Bible, Galatians 1:16-19) of the historical person Jesus—whom he instead would deify—Paul propagates a mystical ‘Christ’ (Bible, Colossians 1:13-27) connected merely by a thread to the earthly, righteous human being Jesus, a man of God and final prophet to his Palestinian Jewish people.
Our rejection of Paul—on the grounds that he is irrelevant to any dependably authentic representation of the historical Jesus—is unimaginable to the average Christian; it is not the kind of thing to be taught in traditional, weekly Sunday School classes, or even in any but the best accredited Bible colleges and seminaries.
Nevertheless, a general outline of the historical progression and the benchmarks used in assembling a body of Christian scripture is part of the Church’s narrative known to modern scholarship. The rough outline of that process and its actors are there in the record.
CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE NOT IN THE LANGUAGE OF JESUS
Furthermore, it is essential for the would-be educated dâʿi, from the get-go, to keep in mind that the composition of the New Testament, which ultimately came to meet a general consensus throughout the Church, has come down to our day in the Greek language, the language in which Paul wrote, the lingua franca (trade language) of the Roman Empire, and not in the local Palestinian language of Jesus, which was Aramaic —a Semitic language, related to the Arabic language.
Thus when we examine the wording of the Greek language New Testament (NT), we are working with possibly skewed language equivalents, as well as looking through a cultural filter—rather than looking directly at Jesus in his own words and in his own cultural setting. (The Semitic sister-language Hebrew is the language of the Old Testament (OT), and thus we are not presented with this same kind of language-culture skewing.)
All the books of the NT, including the Gospel books and the writings of Paul, have come down to us in the Greek language, the classical form of which had long been the prestige literary language of the developed world, and thus the then-current form of Greek was tailor-made for ready worldwide marketing of Pauline Christianity.
WHERE WE GO FROM HERE
We have several essential background basics now firmly under our belts: First, the lack of Paul’s legitimacy as an authentic witness to the historical Jesus. Second, the absence of the original language in our New Testament.
Thus we have taken two steps forward toward understanding the development of the Christian idea of Jesus as having a ‘divine’ status—a status that could justify, in the Church’s [philosophical or theological] eyes, positing a “Godhead” to include “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” as a three-fold unity, or divine “Trinity.”
However, there are other incremental steps along the way for the dâʿi. In Part 3, we look in more depth at what Paul was claiming for himself and for his propagated “Lord Jesus Christ” as input for interpreting the language of worship.
To be continued, inshâ’Allâh, in Part 3…