Scholars have been critically analyzing the works of followers of Jesus with the view of identifying any contradictions. The works of Paul have been criticized by a group of scholars who believe that they have massive contradiction from the works of other apostles, especially James, who was one of the disciples of Jesus. According to Witherington (2013), these claims are largely misguided, especially given the fact that these critics have been analyzing the New Testament partially. They have failed to look at the bible comprehensively in order to address some of the contradictions that may exist due to the difference in personal experiences.
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When the disciples started their work after Jesus had ascended to heaven, most of them were forced to work in different regions as they tried to preach the gospel to the gentiles. This meant that they encountered different sociological factors that informed their writings. Although they were guided by the Holy Spirit during their writings, they had to make their message fit into the local context in order to remain relevant. This meant that the way a message presented by Paul who was in Corinth at one time, would have some slight difference from the message written by James when he was in Antioch. This is a fact that is largely ignored by some scholars when critiquing the works of Jesus’ apostles. In this study, the researcher seeks to discredit the claim that earliest Christianity was like dueling banjos when it came to theology and ethics.
Understanding the Basic Theology and Ethics of the Earliest Christianity
According to Witherington (2013), many scholars have deliberately failed to interpret the message written by the followers of Jesus as they are presented in the bible. They deliberately misinterpret this information by selectively analyzing sections of these works without comprehensively understanding the message that different apostles were trying to pass. Witherington (2013, p. 38) says, “Besides the fact that Tabor dramatically overplays the contrast between James and Paul as individual thinkers and apostles, he also portrays a picture of early Christianity as involving dueling banjos, which is false.” In his works, this scholar tries to bring out the works of the early apostles of Jesus as presented in the bible in different contexts. Some of the disciples of Jesus such as John, James, Peter, and Mathew made massive contributions into the New Testament.
They had direct interaction with Jesus when he started his ministry. However, Paul was a convert who interacted with Jesus in a vision. Some scholars have been using such differences in the way these apostles interacted with Jesus in order to find differences in their work. Paul, though one of the people who were initially opposed to Christianity very strongly, was transformed and became one of the main authors of the New Testament. His teachings have become relevant in the modern day Christianity, surpassing those of other apostles such as James.
Tabor, one of the main critiques of the teachings of Paul, notes that the writings of Paul have eclipsed those of James, and that the two apostles’ messages have some fundamental theological differences that may be confusing. However, it is important to understand the reasons why these apostles had some fundamental differences in the messages they sent to the followers of Christ other than using literal words to make partial judgments. It may not be easy to define the basic theology and ethics of earliest Christians by comparing their work without understanding the context under which they were writing the gospel.
According to Ehrman (2012, p. 29), “Christian diversity is somewhat easier to document in the second century, after the books of the New Testament were written, than in the first.” This scholar holds that for some time early scholars had realized that there were some fundamental differences in the theology and ethics of the earliest Christians as documented in some of the few materials that were scarcely available in the first century. However, the writings were collected and documented which resulted into the New Testament.
It is unique that these books, which were written by different individuals after the death and resurrection of Jesus, had some commonality that only proves that the writers were guided by some divine spirit. The Gospel books preset the religious nature of Christians as taught by Jesus when he was with his disciples. The teachings of Jesus had some revolutionary changes to the religious teachings of the Jews.
For instance, it was not normal for the Jews to interact with the Gentiles, especially when it came to the ceremonies and sharing of meals. However, the gospels clearly demonstrate how Jesus introduced a new belief among these earliest followers that promoted integration between the Jews and the gentiles. During his ministry, Jesus demonstrated to his disciples- the earliest Christians- that they had to interact with the gentiles and pass to them the good news about salvation. This is a practice that was embraced by all the earliest Christians, including Paul and James that some critics have analyzed their work selectively.
Soon after the death of Jesus, the apostles were given the opportunity to preach the word to the rest of the world. Saul-one of the leading persecutor of earliest Christians- met Jesus in a vision, was immediately converted, and changed his name to Paul before starting his mission of preaching the gospel to both the Jews and the gentiles. He embraced the tradition of other early Christians by moving to the gentiles in order to preach the gospel. He automatically came to realize that it was important to make the word of God and the teachings of Jesus known to people all over the world. he travelled broadly preaching the gospel, a character that was common among the earliest Christians during that time.
The ethics of earliest Christians was largely defined by the teaching and habit of Jesus Christ while he was working in his ministry. Ehrman (2012, p. 27) says, “These believers maintained that Jesus was a remarkable man, more righteous in the Jewish Law than any other, a man chosen by God to be his son.” This statement was made by the Jewish-Christians converts who embraced this religion in the early years of its introduction.
This righteousness as an ethical virtue was embraced by all the earliest Christians in their ministerial work as they struggled to preach the gospel. According to these earliest Christians, it was their obligation to ensure that the word of God was preached while maintaining purity in the heart. To achieve this, they had to understand the law and follow it strictly in order to avoid affecting other people. This is closely connected with the statement he made himself, as Witherington (2013, p. 26) notes, which says, “Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to him.” This was a direct call made by Jesus to his followers that they had the responsibility to obey the law. This call defined the religious practices of the earliest Christians as they tried to lead life free from sin. They knew that the best way of staying away from sin is by obeying the law set by those in power. This was an ethical habit that was maintained by these earliest Christians like Paul and James
Another factor that is important to consider when analyzing the theology and ethics of the earliest the environment under which they were spreading the word of God. According to Ehrman (2004), the earliest Christians lived at a time when Christianity was considered a blasphemy by the Pharisees and those who were in power. The Pharisees had succeeded in killing Jesus, their worst enemy that they had feared. They expected that such victory would bring to an end the teachings of Christianity that was popular in their kingdom. However, this was not the case as the disciples continued preaching the gospel. In a bid to fight the growing doctrines of Jesus, the Pharisees started persecuting these earliest Christians. At this stage, it would be important to appreciate the difficulty under which these earliest Christians were working.
Paul wrote some of the letters that are found in the New Testament while he was in the prison. While his divine power guided his work, it would be natural to assume that there are some environmental influences that played a role in the way he wrote this message. In some cases, he was writing the letters after knowing that he was going to be executed by the Roman authorities. He knew that it was his last opportunity to communicate to the new believers. Again it is factual that the message would not be presented in the same way were it that he was writing from the comfort of his house. Trying to selectively compare these letters with those written by James who was in a different context would be illogical. With this knowledge, it would be necessary to analyze the claim that earliest Christianity was like dueling banjos when it came to basic logic.
Fundamental Flaws in the Claim that Earliest Christianity Was Like Dueling Banjos when it came to Basic Theology and Ethics
Some scholars, especially Tabor, have been biased when analyzing the theology and ethics of earliest Christians. Tabor focused on the letters writing by Paul, and those that were written by James. With this, he summarized his work that there were some serious contradictions in the messages presented by the two apostles, and that the works of James have been largely ignored in the New Testament, and in Christian teachings. Comparing the basic theology and ethics of the earliest Christians to dueling banjos is an extremely misleading claim. This can be supported by a number of facts as presented below.
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Some of the people have been interpreting the works of these earliest Christians from a personal angle based on their own values. Ehrman (2012, p. 28) says, “ The Jewish-Christians considered Paul- one of the most prominent authors of our New Testament- to be an architect other than an apostle.” Their reason for rejecting Paul as an apostle was because Jesus brought to an end some of the Jewish Laws. This is the personalized analysis that some scholars have held even in the current society.
They consider the teachings of some of the apostles to be against their own beliefs. It impedes their ability to have a comprehensive analysis of the word as taught by these earliest Christians. This makes it easy for them to see contradictions in terms of their basic theology and ethics, other than seen reasons who sometimes these earliest Christians were forced to behave the way they did at different times.
The earliest Christians were working independently, especially when they were forced to spread the word to different regions. Paul worked with some disciples, including Silas and Barnabas. James and Paul did not have the privilege of working together. It is, therefore, understandable when some of their messages would have some variations in contextual terms. According to Ehrman (2004), although the authors of the New Testament were influenced by God in their works, it is also a fact that their immediate environment was also another factor that played a role in the manner they presented their message.
When Paul was writing his letters to churches that he had established, his message had to be designed specifically to this group. He was not aware that the message could one day be interpreted in the universal context. On the other hand, James was writing to a different group, with a message specifically designed for them. Any attempt to interpret these letters in a universal context would easily lead to misleading information as the claim made above.
In their ministries, these earliest Christians met different people who had different faiths, and therefore, had their own understandings of their messages. This explains why the Jews were slow to accept the Christian faith. Ehrman (2012, p. 32) says, “For Marcion and his followers, the differences between the religion preached by Jesus and his followers, and that of the Jewish Scriptures were plain to see.” One of the differences that they cited is the call by Jesus for forgiveness, while the Jewish scripture called for an eye for an eye. They could not understand the reason why the two scriptures differed that much and this made it easy to discredit some of the Christian teaching, especially as presented by Paul. For this reason, they would selectively interpret the message to suite their arguments that the theology and ethics of these earliest scholars had some fundamental differences.
The claim that earliest Christianity was like dueling banjos when it came to basic theology and ethics has some flaws that makes it unrealistic. As shown in the discussion above, the authors of the New Testament did not converge at a central location when writing their books and letters. They were writing what they saw or what the Holy spirit directed them to write. When writing about personal experiences, it is normal to have some fundamental differences with the experiences of another person, even if both individuals have the same theological beliefs and practices. Using such writings to make claims about the differences in the fundamental theology and ethics is not only misleading, but also unrealistic.
Ehrman, B. D. (2004). The New Testament and other early Christian writings: A reader. New York: Oxford University Press. Web.
Ehrman, B. D. (2012). The New Testament: A historical introduction to the early Christian writings. New York: Oxford University Press. Web.
Witherington, B. (2013). Invitation to the New Testament: First things. Oxford [etc.: Oxford University Press. Web.