What Did The Earliest Christians Believe?
There is a myth out there that goes something like this: The Christianity that we know today was not what the earliest Church believed. The earliest Christians believed something different (which is usually claimed to be Arianism or a more naturalistic view of the faith). However, the claim is that they did not believe what orthodox Christianity claims they believed. However, despite the fact that this is a popular myth, it is baseless. In order to see what the earliest Christians believed, it is important to look at the earliest records we have. As it stands, we have incredibly early accounts that show that the earliest Christians did, in fact, believe what orthodox Christianity claims. One such record is a pre-Pauline creed that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. When I say that this is pre-Pauline, I mean that this creed predates Paul's conversion to Christianity. This is clear when Paul states that he is simply passing on what he has received (v. 3). Most scholars who have studied this creed date it to within about 5 years of the crucifixion, which is incredibly early for ancient sources.
In order to understand what this creed states about the earliest Christian beliefs, it is important to understand the nature of a creed. A creed is not intended to give all of the background information about what it proclaims. Rather, it is intended to be a short, memorable statement of faith. This creed is no different. It does not fill in all the details, but provides us a basic outline of what the earliest Christians believed. This creed tells us about 7 basic beliefs of the first-century Church.
1. Christ Died
This creed shows that the earliest Christians believed that Christ, the Jewish Messiah, was killed. This can be deduced from the context of this statement. While this creed does not outline the manner in which the Messiah was killed, it was not intended to. Rather, it was intended to give the basic outline of the earliest Christian beliefs.
2. For Our Sins
It was an early Christian belief that the death of the Messiah was for the sins of the world. It was not for his own sins that Jesus died, but rather for the sins of others. It was for the sins of the whole world, but it was also for our sins. Since this would have been a creed recited by new believers coming to faith, new believers would have been confessing that Christ died for their sins. This is important to understand.
3. In Accordance With The Scriptures
The earliest Christians believed that Christ's death for our sins was in accordance with the Scriptures. They were not alone in this. By the time of Jesus, there was an expectation for two Messiahs. The first Messiah would be the triumphant son of David who would vanquish the Romans. The second Messiah would be the Suffering Servant foretold in places such as Isaiah 53. After the death and resurrection of Christ, the idea of a suffering Messiah was abandoned by many of the Jewish people. Isaiah 53 was not the only part of the Hebrew Bible that they would have had in mind. They would have also had in mind passages such as Psalm 22, which spoke of the Messiah's sufferings.
4. He Was Buried
The earliest Christians believed that Jesus was buried after his death. This passage makes no mention of Joseph of Arimathea, nor should we expect it to. It is, after all, only a short summary of the facts about the Christian faith. It does not fill in all the details.
5. He Was Raised On The Third Day
The earliest Christians also believed that Jesus was raised bodily on the third day. We can be confident that they intended to convey a bodily resurrection, since the Greek word used here is ἐγείρω, which conveys the idea of "getting up," or moving from a prone or sitting position to a standing position. It was not used in either Christian or pagan circles to mean just a spiritual or non-bodily rising. It always involved movement.
The resurrection on the third day is also significant. There was a Jewish belief at the time that decomposition began on the fourth day, and that such decomposition was recompense for someone's sins. Since Jesus was raised on the third day, he did not suffer decomposition. Thus, it would be another factor pointing to Christ's innocence.
6. In Accordance With The Scriptures
The earliest Christians also believed that the resurrection was foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. They would have had in mind passages such as Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, Psalm 2, and Psalm 110. Several passages in the Christian Old Testament can only be understood as pointing to the Messiah's resurrection. Psalm 110 can only be understood in terms of the Messiah having a divine nature.
7. And He Appeared
The early Christians claimed to have experienced Jesus alive after his crucifixion. The nature of these appearances cannot be discounted as mere hallucinations. In his interpolation in this creed, Paul even challenges his readers to go and question some of the people who saw Jesus alive, stating that 500 people at once saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. This is one claim that the early Church was adamant about.
The interesting thing about these claims is that orthodox Christianity claims all of these same things today. While there may be a myth that the early Church believed differently than orthodox Christianity does today, it remains just that: a myth.