April 15, 2006


The Jewishness of the Nicene Creed: It was the Bible, not Greek philosophy, that shaped the theology of the Nicene bishops. (David Neff, 02/25/2005, Christianity Today)

In working on the most recent issue of Christian History & Biography ("Debating Jesus' Divinity"), we once again ran into the old canard that the Nicene bishops relied more on Greek philosophical concepts than on the Bible. That is the conventional wisdom in some circles, but let's take a closer look at what those bishops did. With the help of Norwegian church historian Oscar Skarsaune and his book In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish influences on Early Christianity (IVP, 2002), we'll learn a different story.

Let's begin at the beginning. The oldest creeds were simple baptismal vows—affirmations of belief in God the Father, in Jesus the Messiah, his Son, and in the Holy Spirit. Hints of such early baptismal statements can be found in Justin (writing about 150) and Tertullian (writing between 190 and 200).

By about 220, baptismal candidates were affirming a slightly more complex set of beliefs. Here is how the Roman presbyter Hippolytus describes the questions they were asked:

Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?

Do you believe in the Messiah (Christus) Jesus, the Son of God,

Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,

Who was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose the third day living from the dead and ascended into the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

If you translate those "Do you believe" questions into "I believe" statements, you have something very much like the Old Roman Creed which took final form in the Apostles' Creed (5th century).

These baptismal vows say a lot more about Jesus and his activity than they do about God the Father or the Holy Spirit. That's because they focus on Jesus' role as the Messiah rather than on his relationship to the other members of the Godhead. This summary of activity is similar to earlier summaries found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, a document called the Preaching of Peter (about AD 125), and Justin's First Apology (about AD 150). According to Skarsaune, this Messianic focus reveals a very Jewish interest. [...]

[S]karsaune makes a telling point: Evidence shows that "most Hellenists actually reacted with disgust and contempt at the very idea of a divine incarnation, and with charges of blasphemy when they heard that the incarnate Son of God had suffered the uttermost shame of crucifixion."

The stakes seem apparent: the anti-religious hope to show that Christianity is--in whole or part--a product of secular philosophy, not of religious Judaism. For whatever reason, they imagine this would prove embarrassing to the faithful.

[Originally posted: March 1, 2005]

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2006 11:49 PM

Here is one antireligionist who is not concerned to show that Christianity derives from secular philosophy.

I am happy to admit that it derives from the crazed ravings of vile goatwallopers.

To the extent that Christianity had any desirable features -- its rather creaky institutions for dealing with abandoned babies is one that comes readily to mind -- many if not all of those were borrowed from pagan practice contemporaneous with the rise of the Christian cult.

But those humane impulses always coexisted very uneasily with the instructions of the Scriptures, which are, to say the least of it, not pro-helpless babies.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 2, 2005 3:03 PM