Christ pantocrator

Surprised by First-Century Christology

I’m reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Together with Colossians, 1 and 2 Corinthians and a few others, these are the letters that are universally acknowledged as being from Paul, written from prison in the early 60s AD. Only three decades after Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul writes these letters to Christian communities to underscore and fine-tune what they already believe about Christ. Just the first chapter of Ephesians alone assumes a pre-existent divine Christ, who was bodily raised from the dead and has been exalted to the right hand of the Father, and a Church of saints predestined to share His eternal glory.

Read a few more chapters of Paul and you can’t help seeing the depth, detail, and magnitude of the christology that Paul expects to be common knowledge to all his first-century readers. They weren’t slowly evolving a myth about some shadowy ancient figure; the Gospel events were only thirty years earlier, and most of the eyewitnesses were still alive. These communities – in Thessaloniki, Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi, and elsewhere — received Paul’s letters as normal Christianity. They didn’t find Paul’s divine Christ at all new or surprising; they copied and distributed his letters, and translated them into other languages.

And here’s the important thing: The Gospels were written after Paul’s letters. Mark’s Gospel might have overlapped Paul’s life, but Matthew and Luke come along later on, and John later still. The Gospels were written to Christian communities that already worshiped Christ as a physically resurrected God-man. The Gospels aren’t the first presentation of the Jesus story that these communities heard: the Gospels bear witness to the doctrine of Christ that apostles like Paul had already taught their parents or grandparents decades earlier.

Even the latest Gospel (John, c. 96 AD) was written within living memory of the events it describes. In our own generation, Martin Luther King died about 40 years ago, and is highly respected. If I wanted to introduce a teaching that MLK was God before his birth, that he was born of a virgin, or that he’d risen from the dead and would judge the world, I’d have to wait at least another century or two, until he and everyone who knew anything about him firsthand were safely distant in time.

The Church didn’t have time to evolve a myth. By 100 AD we have Christian communities all over the Mediterranean, upholding a common orthodoxy against schisms and heresies – and many or most of these communities have not yet received any of the four Gospel texts. By 150 we have letters from Christian bishops in Gaul and North Africa debating complex issues of faith and practice with the bishop in Rome, along with accounts like Justin Martyr’s, of a Christian liturgy very much like what the Church still uses today.

History shows a Church with a detailed, mature christology from its very earliest decades. The notion of a gradually evolving syncretistic myth doesn’t fit into the actual timeline of historical events.

Fr Silouan Thompson

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