Saturday, August 13, 2011

JI: How Christianity Evolved (Part 1)

It would surprise many Christians to learn that the beliefs of the very early church were totally different than those of modern times. If a Baptist preacher could go back in time and interview Christians from around 50 CE, he would find their views on the afterlife or Jesus' relationship to God and Judaism to be not just unusual, but completely heretical. In the seventh chapter of JI, Ehrman covers how Christian doctrines developed to become what they are today.

The first issue is that of how Jesus came to be seen as the Messiah. Ehrman points out that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a powerful king that would rise up to destroy their enemies or a cosmic judge of the world, based on the authority of Old Testament prophecy like Psalm 2:1-9 and Daniel 7:11-14. But Jesus could hardly have failed more spectacularly to fit this mold: he was a little-known, harmless itinerant preacher who was effortlessly crushed by the Roman Empire.

Uh, yeah, we're pretty sure you're not our guy.
We're gonna go ahead and wait.
So how did Christians come to view Jesus as the Messiah? After they became convinced that he had risen from the dead, their view that he was the Anointed One was cemented. All that was left was to reinterpret the OT. They explained away the "king" prophecies as spiritual, decided that any OT bits that happened to vaguely fit Jesus' life were prophecies, completely fabricated details of his life to fit other prophecies, and presto! Instant Messiah.

Another trend in the early church was the rise of anti-Semitism. Given that Jesus and his disciples were Jews, and that Jesus preached that people should repent according to Jewish law before the imminent apocalypse, this seems bizarrely inconsistent. However, as time passed, Christians reinterpreted Jesus' message, became frustrated with Jewish refusal to accept him as Messiah, and even began blaming them for his death. John's gospel calls Jews the "children of the Devil" (John 8:37-44), the bishop Melito repeatedly accused them of murdering Jesus, and Justin Martyr wrote that circumcision was meant to set Jews apart as worthy of persecution. This marked the first time that Jews were singled out as a persecuted minority—and it led to many others throughout history.

This chapter is a long and detailed one—not surprising given that this is Ehrman's particular area of expertise—so I'll stop here for now. Tomorrow I'll cover how the views of a divine Jesus, the Trinity, and the afterlife developed.

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