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New Testament Creeds: A Strong Case for the Gospels

The New Testament does not quote only from the Old Testament. It also quotes pre-New Testament creeds which describe early Christian doctrine. Scholars recognize several of these creedal passages.[1]

All creedal material embedded in the New Testament predates the texts within which it finds itself. The author uses these creeds for a couple reasons: first, to remind the original audience of teachings and traditions they had received orally, and, second, to confirm the author’s written word against such previously received kerygma.

Several biblical critics holding a low view of scripture and traditional orthodox Christian beliefs—critics such as Bart Ehrman, Rudolf Bultmann, and Gerd Lüdemann—readily concede an abundant amount of such creedal material within New Testament corpus.[2]

However, these scholars fail to follow the evidence to its logical conclusion; namely that the earliest Christian communities were unified in their core beliefs and such unified beliefs existed from the earliest temporal strata of the movement. By failing to seriously consider the early and consistently unified nature of such New Testament creeds, those espousing negative theories regarding the veracity of the Gospel and orthodox Christianity render themselves less convincing and more incoherent than moderate and conservative scholars.

In response to non-orthodox and non-biblical explanations for the divinity of Jesus Christ as well as a unified ancient Christianity, two factors prove most pertinent:
  • The early pre-textual dates for the creedal material
  • The unified doctrinal content of the creedal material

It is not as though critics such as Ehrman, Bultmann, and Lüdemann deny the early and unified nature of creedal material. They affirm these things. Yet for some reason they insist that the claims thereof do not correspond to reality.

Several other prominent scholars aid in response. C.H. Dodd dates Paul’s deliverance of his Gospel and traditions to the Corinthians in ca. 50 C.E.[3] Dodd also reminds his audience how Paul alluded to images and experiences familiar to his readers in one of his earliest letters Galatians (3:1). The epistle would have made little sense had Paul’s audience not been aware of what he was referring to.[4] Dodd summarizes the reality of the early nature of Paul’s datum of faith as he writes that “it is not something for which Paul argues, but something from which he argues; something therefore which we may legitimately assume to have been a part of his fundamental preaching.”[5]

If Paul argued from this Datum then his audiences must have been familiar with such Datum. With Paul’s letters spanning a time of the earliest at 49 C.E. through to his death in the mid to late sixties, then such pre-textual kerygma can only have stemmed from the first two decades of Christianity.

New Testament scholar Paul Barnett aptly describes this early window between Jesus and Paul’s first epistles from which the creeds must have stemmed as “a brevity without parallel in antiquity.”[6]

Even a cursory summary of the major creedal and kerygmatic passages accepted by the majority of scholars produces results of close commonality in content. Dodd includes several key features found in Paul’s Gospel; namely fulfilled prophecy, Jesus born of David’s line, His death according to the scriptures, His burial, His resurrection on the third day, His exaltation to the right hand of God as God’s Son and the Lord of the living and the dead, as well as the promise of His return.[7]

Dodd also emphatically underlines the consensus of doctrine between Paul and the other Apostles as he writes, “There is, indeed, very little in the Jerusalem kerygma which does not appear, substantially, in Paul.”[8] At another juncture, he adds that “…anyone who should maintain that the primitive Christian Gospel was fundamentally different from that which we have found in Paul must bear the burden of proof.”[9]

Yet perhaps the most succinctly poignant statement in contemporary literature that not only accurately reflects both the thoroughly unified and very early nature of the pre-textual creedal and kerygmatic material comes from the pen of Richard Bauckham as he writes,

“The earliest Christology was already the highest Christology.”[10]

 

[1] Several of the major creedal passages are the following: Galatians 1-2- Although perhaps not in kerygmatic formulation these two chapters underline Paul’s expectation of the Galatians to recall his former teachings; Romans 1:3-4, Romans 10:9, 1 Cor. 8:6, 1 Cor. 12:3, 2 Cor. 13:13, Phil 2:6-11, Luke 24:34, Romans 4:25, Col 1: 15-20, 2 Timothy 2:11-13, 1 Tim. 6:12, 1, Tim. 3:16.

[2] For example, see Ehrman, Bart. Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are. (New York: Harper One, 2011), 92-93; Bultmann, Rudolf. Bultmann, Rudolf. New Testament Theology, Vol 1. (New York: Charles Sribner’s Sons, New York) 42, 49; and Lüdemann, Gerd. Paulus, der Grunder des Christentums. (Lüneburg: zu Klampen, 2001), 142.

[3] Dodd, C.H. The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1980), 94.

[4] Dodd, 11.

[5] Dodd, 12.

[6] Barnett, Paul. The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 210.

7] Dodd, 17.

[8] Dodd, 27.

[9] Dodd, 16.

[10] Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament Christology of Divine Identity. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

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