But the alternative forms of Christianity in the early centuries of the church wrestled over much larger doctrinal questions, many of them unthinkable in most modern Christian churches, such as how many gods there are (one? two? twelve? thirty?); whether the true God created the world or whether, instead, it was created by a lower, inferior deity; whether Jesus was divine, or human, or somehow both; whether Jesus' death brought salvation, or was irrelevant for salvation, or whether he even died. (Bart Ehrman in Lost Scriptures, 2003 Oxford Univeristy Press, p. 1).This is Bart Ehrman's opening salvo on the first page of his book, Lost Scriptures, something of a companion book or sequel to Lost Christianities. He follows up on the next page with his take on the formation of the Christian consensus:
These beliefs, and the group who promoted them, came to be thought of as "orthodox" (literally meaning, "the right belief"), and alternative views -- such as the view that there are two gods, or that the true God did not create the world, or that Jesus was not actually human or not actually divine, etc. -- came to be labeled "heresy" (= false belief) and were then ruled out of court. Moreover, the victors in the struggles to establish Christian orthodoxy not only won their theological battles, they also rewrote the history of the conflict: later readers, then, naturally assumed that the victorious views had been embraced by the vast majority of Christians from the very beginning, all the way back to Jesus and his closest followers, the apostles.Now, is Ehrman suggesting that Jesus and his apostles taught the existence of two gods (or twelve, or thirty), or that we cannot know whether Jesus taught one God, or two gods, or twelve, or thirty? Unless he is suggesting something of that sort, then his mention of all that is -- to say the least -- out of place in his argument. Is he suggesting that Jesus and his apostles weren't rooted in Jewish tradition of the Second Temple period? Or is he suggesting that the Jewish tradition of the Second Temple period wasn't completely decided about monotheism? Perhaps he's suggesting that the Jewish followers of Christ had some variant teachings about whether God was actually the creator of the worlds?
But unless he is suggesting exactly that, then even he would have to admit that the teachings that trace back to Jesus and his apostles are, on the question of how many gods, monotheistic. Unless Ehrman is suggesting that Christ and his apostles taught the "other creator" theory, then even he would have to admit that the teachings that trace back to Jesus and his apostles are, on the question of the creator, in favor of the one true God also being the creator. On the question of whether Jesus died -- unless Ehrman is suggesting that one of Jesus' apostles taught that he never actually died, then even Ehrman would have to admit that the teachings tracing back to the apostles are decided in favor of Jesus' real, physical, historical death on a cross under Pontius Pilate. Likewise as to the teaching on whether Jesus was actually human; does Ehrman suggest that the teaching that Jesus wasn't actually physical and human traces back to Christ and the apostles? And if not, then the teaching that traces back to Christ and his apostles is of Jesus' real humanity.
The simple fact of Jesus' and the apostles' Judaism in the Second Temple era gives us overwhelming reason to believe that they were monotheists. The same fact gives us overwhelming reason to believe that they held that same One God to be the creator of heaven and earth. Likewise even if one of the Jews should have taken Jesus for a prophet or a sorcerer, there would still have been unanimity about his humanity amongst those who knew him, and about his death. Absent is any credible suggestion that Jesus and his followers held different views on any of these things. To review what Ehrman had said:
Moreover, the victors in the struggles to establish Christian orthodoxy not only won their theological battles, they also rewrote the history of the conflict: later readers, then, naturally assumed that the victorious views had been embraced by the vast majority of Christians from the very beginning, all the way back to Jesus and his closest followers, the apostles.But if Jesus and is followers were Second Temple Jews -- and they were -- then we have overwhelming reason to believe that orthodox view of one God, and that one God as the creator, does in fact trace to "the very beginning, all the way back to Jesus and his closest followers."
One thing which Ehrman does not appreciate -- and in fairness to Ehrman, he is in good company as many scholars have not fully appreciated -- that in the earliest days of the church, in the face of all these conflicting views which, as Ehrman mentions, actually were floating around -- there was already underway something that I will call the Very First Quest for the Historical Jesus. From our vantage-point, we probably have a greater knowledge of Judaism than many of the pagans who met Judaism in depth for the first time when they began to follow Christ. And as much as it's in bad taste to quarrel about religion, we do have to affirm that Christ and his apostles, as Second Temple Jews, were definitely on the side of one God (not two, or twelve, or thirty), and of that same One God creating the world, and of Jesus' true humanity, and of Jesus' true death. I do not see any rational dispute on these particular things as to what Jesus and his disciples originally taught. The findings of the Very First Quest for the Historical Jesus shaped what we now know as orthodoxy, and the orthodox views on these subjects gained prominence by the simple means of being right about what Jesus and his disciples actually taught. Orthodoxy was, in its early days, nothing else than the Very First Quest for the Historical Jesus.
Today's orthodoxy has the same task as orthodoxy has always had: seeking the real Jesus so that the key questions can be answered: Who is Jesus? Is he only human or is he also divine? What does his death mean for us? What does the cross mean for salvation? These are the depths of theology, the questions over which multiple views still wrestle as they have since the beginning of the faith, since Christ first pressed the question: Who do you say that I am? But this second type of question cannot be answered by looking at Second Temple Judaism alone; it requires a closer look at the actual contents of what we know about Christ in particular. That is the subject of part 2.