Early Christian Beliefs, and Sources Thereof
Since it's almost Christmas Eve, I thought I'd make my first thread on this site on the historical sources of early Christian beliefs and some unexpected implications they raise. This topic troubled me when I was religious and I still find it interesting now that I am not; I would love to go back in time to the first-century eastern Mediterranean and Levant and hear all the different eschatological and apocalyptic beliefs of the various blossoming cults, Christian and otherwise. In this post, I want to question how many of what we now consider to be the core Christian beliefs--e.g. the beliefs decided upon by the Ecumenical councils--were actually held by the early Christians.

The current consensus among scholars is that the gospels of Luke and Matthew both draw extensively from the gospel of Mark, which is thought to be the earliest of the gospels, written sometime around 70 A.D. Strangely, in its earliest full copies (dated to the late 4th century A.D.) the gospel of Mark includes only the first eight verses of chapter 16; it crucially does not include a description of the Resurrection, but only the promise of it by a "young man," who is called an angel only in the New Living Translation of the Bible. In this early version of Mark, the empty tomb and the rolled away stone are still there, but the women are frightened, run away, and do not say anything to anyone. While Mark 16:9-20 are not included in these earliest copies, the verses are attested to by the Assyrian Christian theologian Tatian, who includes them in his Diatessaron, a compilation of the gospels, written circa 160-175 A.D. (the original text has not survived; it was reconstructed in the late 19th century).
What does this tell us? The last verses of Mark are very important--Jesus resurrects from death and appears to his Apostles, commanding them to go out into the world and preach the gospel and proclaiming that those who believe will be saved and those who do not will be condemned. He tells them that those who believe will drive out demons, speak in new tongues, develop immunity to poison, and heal the sick; the gospel even says that these things came true. If these verses were in fact around by the time our earliest copies of Mark were written in the 4th century A.D.--and they seem to have been, per Tatian--why didn't the transcribers include them? (Not a rhetorical question--historically savvy members please chime in.)

It is also worth looking at non-gospel New Testament verses, such as the first epistle by Paul to the Christian community in Corinth. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 tells us: 
Paul Wrote:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Acts 17 is also worth looking at; verses 2-3 say: 
Paul Wrote:2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.
Verses 31-33 tell us:
Luke Wrote:31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” 32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”33 At that, Paul left the Council.
Notably, both Corinthians and Acts affirm the Resurrection, and Acts refers to Jesus as the Christ. i.e. the anointed one/Messiah and "the man [God] has appointed," but neither passage refers to Jesus as God. What does this tell us about early Christian beliefs? 1 Corinthians was written before any of the gospels. Acts was written around the same time as the gospel of Luke, but the events it relates would have happened much earlier, shortly after the death of Jesus. Could it be that at this time, the doctrine of Jesus as God was not yet developed?

The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, says of Jesus:
Judah ha-Nasi Wrote:It was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, 'He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.' But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!
In a different translation:
Judah ha-Nasi Wrote:But isn’t it taught in a baraita: On Passover Eve they hung the corpse of Jesus the Nazarene after they killed him by way of stoning. And a crier went out before him for forty days, publicly proclaiming: Jesus the Nazarene is going out to be stoned because he practiced sorcery, incited people to idol worship, and led the Jewish people astray. Anyone who knows of a reason to acquit him should come forward and teach it on his behalf. And the court did not find a reason to acquit him, and so they stoned him and hung his corpse on Passover eve.
The charges brought here seem like an expectedly uncharitable characterization of Jesus' actions in the gospels, but they do not mention the crime of proclaiming himself to be God. Would this not have been a remarkable offense to the Hebrews, worth making explicit beyond the vague mention of "apostacy?" While the Babylonian Talmud was compiled circa 500 A.D., this section is thought to have been compiled in the 2nd century A.D.

Another important source for early Christian history is the Judeo-Roman military leader and historian Josephus Flavius and his work Antiquities of the Jews, which was written around A.D. 93, some sixty years or so after the death of Jesus. Josephus tells us many curious things about the Jews at this time--for example, he says that most Jews believed in the immortality of the soul and an afterlife of either punishment or pain, depending on one's moral conduct in life (NB: unlike the Christian teaching on accepting salvation), as per the Pharisee tradition. He writes:
Josephus Wrote:[The Pharisees] do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a temperament, whereby what he wills is done, but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously.
The Pharisees are also said to live like ascetics and follow reason. Is there a causality here, one way or the other? Despite rather fine philosophical distinctions, there seems to be a broad similarity between Christian and Pharisaic beliefs on the freedom of the will and the fate of the soul in the afterlife. Were Pharisaic teachings influenced by early Christian beliefs, or the other way around?
More relevant to the topic at hand, Josephus also gives an account of the early Christians and their preaching of the Resurrection of Christ (some of his passages have been embellished to present an uncharacteristically pro-Christian view over time, but this much is not disputed). He also writes of the killing of John the Baptist and the stoning of James, Brother of Jesus, indicating persecution of the early Christians. In his Annals written in the early second century A.D., Tacitus speaks of a troublesome doctrine spread by the Christians after the execution of a "Christus" and, despite his hatred of them, of the inhumane torture they were forced to endure. Again, however, no mention of Jesus claiming to be God, something both Josephus and Tacitus would likely have found abhorrent and worth mentioning.

Interested to hear how Christian members interpret this omission of Jesus' Godhood in internal and external descriptions of early Christian beliefs. To me this seems like a case of doctrinal/theological evolution whereby, in the polyphonic confusion of early Christian oral tradition, Jesus' status escalated from Messiah to God. Now obviously this would be condemned as some type of Arian heresy per Ecumenical councils, but these came later than the sources discussed above, with the first--the council of Nicaea--being held in 325 A.D. Could the divinity of Jesus have been a later addition to the early Christian belief-set?
For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. 

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