This is the third post in my series on Apologetics. At the end of each post I’ll make some book recommendations. This post will serve to introduce you to the topic of creeds, and the earliest written New Testament book. Next week we’ll look at when other New Testament books were written and how the canon was formed. The apologetic series begins here, if you want to catch up.
I remember learning all of this in my studies, and discussing with a few adults from my home church. I was so excited by this, and yet I could see it caused a great deal of angst in some minds. Some Christians have never pondered this, and believe that the working of the Holy Spirit in inspiration is so mysterious and amazing that we ought not to wonder about the human authors, or the instruments, or how many copies archaeologists have found, or whether it was all Greek, and how the words were used, or whether anyone in history debated whether a particular epistle was canonical or not.
Knowing the history of these books does not diminish our true faith; we admit that God was and is sovereignly at work, and we can enjoy looking back to trace His handiwork in revealing and using His Word. I hope this post helps you see His hand at work.
The earliest written book
The earliest book of the New Testament, agreed on by many scholars, is an epistle, the first to the church at Thessolonica. Like other epistles it was intended to be read, re-read, copied, remembered, and passed among the churches. Paul even closes with “I adjure you by the Lord to have the letter read to all the brethren.”
If you study 1 Thessalonians knowing it was written only 20 years after the resurrection of Christ, it will open up a new perspective for you. From the beginning, the message of the Gospel, preached by the Apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit, was deep. Their Christology was very high, their theology intricate and Trinitarian.
Why does this matter to me?
As you think about the founding of the church, the gospel–the apostolic message–was deep and intricate, worshipping Jesus Christ as God. In Ancient History, to have an account written down 100 or 200 years later was common, trusted, and considered reliable. To have a source written down giving such glory to Jesus Christ within 20 years is quite remarkable.
The tenets of our faith were passed on in written form very early, with no time for the original audience to pass away. Therefore, if the original audience wanted to debate the doctrine written down they would have. This was not the message of someone whose great great grandpa’s neighbor heard Paul teach, this was Paul’s letter. This is an original source.
For anyone interested, there will be a separate post on the philosophy of history, or on how history is done. There is not room enough here to get into the nitty gritty. But I offer you this intriguing quote to consider:
“Our word “history” derives from a Greek word (historesai) that meant “inquire into” or “become acquainted with” (cf. Gal 1:18). The work of the historian is to find sources of information, to evaluate their reliability, to make disciplined “inquiry” into their meaning and with imagination to reconstruct “what happened.” It follows logically that the sources closes to the event or person in question, in particular eyewitness sources, are of special interest. Sources that merely repeat earlier sources are generally of little value. Much of what follows will involve discussion of sources and the identification of evidence that can be employed in a reconstruction of the events to which they relate.”Paul Barnett. The Birth of Christianity: the First Twenty Years, (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI; 2005), 10.
Most historically accepted facts have one source, hundreds of years later, and are not disputed but are widely accepted (Ceasar crossing the Rubicon for example). Yet–Jesus’ life, and the preaching of the gospel, and Jesus’ Deity has many sources (we’ll cover this more next week), the youngest written being 20 years out. More impressive still are the oral creeds that were passed along quite early and written down eventually in many of the New Testament books.
Within the New Testament, we find Creeds!
Though our culture is easily distracted, and some mistakenly believe there are pockets of society unable to listen to a lecture (the pseudo science behind ‘learning style preferences’ has been debunked), many in the original gospel audience would have been used to listening, and memorizing. No one in that day said “but I’m a tactile learner, so please adapt…” And so, very successfully, creeds were passed on, learned. People would cling to the truths, and test what they heard by them.
Perhaps the most notable to modern Christians is contained in 1 Corinthians 15, this was being circulated among churches within months of the resurrection! Not hundreds of years, but months. Most of the creeds have been located and agreed on by critical scholars (discussed briefly below), and are dated to the early 30’s. Remember, Jesus was crucified in 30 or 33A.D. (yes, the year is disputed, but that topic is covered at length in books–not properly in blog posts), then this means all these early creeds are the earliest record of what the church believed.
Spend some time reading, journaling through, and even memorizing some of these! Luke 24:34; Romans 1:3-4; Romans 4:25; Romans 10:9; 1 Corinthians 8:6 (discussed further below!); 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 1 Corinthians 15:3ff; Philippians 2:5-11; Galatians 1:12; Acts 2:22; Acts 3:13ff; Acts 10:34-40; Acts 13:28-31. Commentators also agree that over 40% of the Epistle to Titus contains creeds! I highly recommend memorizing Titus 3:5ff.
So, we have critically accepted portions dating to days after Jesus’ death. Historically speaking it doesn’t get any better than that. For apologetical purposes, what does “critically accepted” mean? It means the historians who are not Christians, who study this era and the life of Jesus, agree on these portions being accurate, good history. When speaking to an opponent about the hope you have in Christ, using the critically accepted portions can be a good starting point. When defending your faith, you need to know who you are talking to, and approach the topic in wisdom, a little differently for each different opponent.
Jesus’ Deity, the Name above all names!
Jesus Christ as God is attested immediately after His death. This is not something that was formulated over a few hundred years, it arose immediately. Christology, or the knowledge of Who He was, His Work, His Personhood, etc. was delighted in and passed on in the church from the moment of its inception. You cannot be a Christian and turn away from this knowledge. The True Church will cling to its high Christology, passing on such sweet doctrines (rather than relegating them to seminarians alone).
Another quote to consider:
“The critical point to establish is whether Paul invented his christology or derived it from others. Our argument will be that while Paul was a ‘creative’ theologian, his christology in all essential points was not of his making but was formulated by those who were believers before him. This would mean that the christology he articulates was formulated within that brief span between the crucifixion of Jesus and the conversion of Paul. It may be asked why the subject of christology is raised so soon in this, a professed work of history. The answer is clear. It was christology that gave birth to Christianity, not the reverse. Furthermore, Christ gave birth to christology. The chronology drives us to this conclusion.”Barnett, 26.
Give it a Listen!
For those of you who love podcasts, why not try a lecture–by a man who has studied all the historical texts, and made his life’s work out of debating other scholars, teaching, studying; namely Dr. Gary Habermas. He is passionate about what he studies and teaches, and about using his vocation to gird up the church. He was one of the most encouraging professors I had during my graduate studies. You can listen to it in full here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gisWsQGiV5c
The following are my notes from a portion of Dr. Habermas’ presentation at that event:
The Great Shema claims that there is only One True God, found in Deuteronomy 6, and was memorized and repeated by all true Israelites. Yet among Jewish converts to Christianity, we see them claim early on that Jesus is God the Son. See 1 Cor 8:6; Phil 2:5-11 and Isaiah 42:8 “I will not share my glory with another.” God does not share His glory with another, Jesus is not “another god.” In all the earliest creeds, and in the earliest NT book of 1 Thess, Jesus has the Name above all Names. In less than 20 years, we see He has been given much glory.
We ought to bask in this, memorize it, transmit it. This tradition MUST be handed down! We need to learn it and contend for it as the epistle of Jude exhorts us:
“…Contend earnestly for the faith [doctrine] which was once for all handed down to the saints.”Jude 3
NOTE, contending does not mean to be contentious. Rather it implies that you know, understand, teach, defend against error, and otherwise protect the purity of the doctrines as you keep them, discuss them, converse over them (remember Deuteronomy 6?) and hand them down to the next generation.
Paul Barnett. The Birth of Christianity: the First Twenty Years, (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI; 2005).
Paul Barnett. Is the New Testament Reliable? A Historical Look at the Evidence, (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grover, Illinois; 1986).
Gary Habermas. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, (College Press Publishing Company: Joplin, Missouri; 1996). See especially chapters 7-8! Also check out his website for lots of videos, posts, and Q and A.