If the truth of Jesus of Nazareth has been radically changed; if his message has been altered, and the truth of the Resurrection changed, Christianity itself would collapse even by its own standard.
Skeptics sometimes argue that the Christianity in its early years looked different than modern-day Christianity. Specifically, they question whether Jesus claimed to be God or if he was deified by a band of disappointed followers after his crucifixion. Christianity is grounded on the view that the claims of the New Testament are true. The gospels describe historical events, accurately recorded. The Apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ is not [truly] raised… our preaching is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Did Christianity “evolve” as skeptics claim?
If the truth of Jesus of Nazareth has been radically changed; if his message has been altered, and the truth of the Resurrection changed, Christianity itself would collapse even by its own standard. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman suggested the claims of Christianity had changed over time in a 2014 interview with NPR, stating:
“During his lifetime, Jesus himself didn’t call himself God and didn’t consider himself God, and… none of his disciples had any inkling at all that he was God.”
But early Christian literature written after the death of Jesus tells another story: that Jesus was considered God from the earliest days of the Christian faith.
The Apostle Paul, an early convert to Christianity, wrote some of the earliest texts of Christianity. Paul was martyred in the early-to-mid 60s A.D.and is traditionally thought to be the author of 13 New Testament books. Skeptics such as Ehrman question the authenticity of some of these writings; however, nearly all scholars agree that Paul authored at least 7 of these books. Using just these 7 letters, written between the late-40 and early 60s A.D., we can capture a glimpse of Christianity just 15 to 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
In these letters, Paul described Jesus as the “Lord Jesus Christ,” states Jesus died to provide salvation, claims Jesus was resurrected, and includes explicit language regarding Jesus’ deity. In Philippians 2:6-7, Paul wrote:
“as He [Jesus] already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men.”
Paul was converted well after the other apostles and began his mission after the other apostles had been preaching and teaching. As a result, Paul’s letters did not contain new teachings, but instead conformed to the pre-existing teachings of the other Apostles.
Some skeptics are quick to reject or minimize the whole of New Testament scripture, including even these early letters of Paul, insisting that the earliest Christian believers did not interpret Paul’s writings in the same way that modern orthodox Christian theologians typically interpret them. Luckily, the historical record between the New Testament and modern-day Christianity is not silent.