Lecture 4: What is Christianity?



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Shaye J.D. Cohen scohen@fas.harvard.edu

CB 23 Fall 2014



Lecture 4: What is Christianity?

A comprehensive demographic study of more than 200 countries finds that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages around the world, representing nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion. Christians are also geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.

http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/

Methodological note:

When we describe a religion (or any –ism), what are we describing …see lecture 03… in spite of diversity and discord.



  • In Christianity there was (as in Judaism) a great rupture in the 19th century (with the rise of competing liberal and illiberal trends)

  • Before the 19th century we have at least two other great ruptures in the history of Christianity:

    • Eastern (Orthodox) vs. Western (Roman Catholic) Christianity (“Great Schism” of 1054; the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204)

    • the Catholic-Protestant split in early 16th century and subsequent religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.

I am going to focus here on the “big tradition,” the major truth claims advanced over the centuries by the “big books” and the ecumenical councils that were widely accepted as authoritative by significant portions of the community.

The main truth claims of Christians speaking on behalf of Christianity cluster around three topics: God-Christ-Church.

God and Christ:

From the earliest times Christians defined themselves as having distinctive views about God (and Jesus). Creedal formulations emerge early (beginnings already in NT).



Merriam Webster Online dictionary s.v. creed: 1:a brief authoritative formula of religious belief 2:a set of fundamental beliefs; also : a guiding principle

Creeds are belief-that propositions.

Most famous and important is the creed promulgated by the church council of Nicaea (the Nicene creed, 325 CE), the basis of many later creeds:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty,


Maker of all things visible and invisible.

This God is the God of the Bible:



  • “One God” echoes [via Paul, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:6] Deuteronomy 6:4, the first line of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

  • God is the “Father” of the Israelites and they are his “sons”: (Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 8:5, 14:1)

  • “Almighty” (pantokratôr) is a regular epithet for God in the Greek Bible

  • “Maker of all things visible and invisible” is a paraphrase of Genesis 1:1-2 [via Colossians 1:16].

Implicit rejection of Marcion (mid-second century) who had argued that the God of the Bible is not the God of Jesus and Christianity.

and in one Lord Jesus Christ,


the only begotten of the Father,
that is, of the substance of the Father,
God of God, light of light, true God of true God,
begotten not made,
of the same substance with the Father,
through whom all things were made
both in heaven and on earth;

Jesus is Lord (kyrios in Greek), the divine entity through which the world was created.

The specification and detail here are a response to Arians and other “heretics,” but Jews too would and did reject the idea that Jesus is God.

who for us men and our salvation descended,


was incarnate,
and was made man,
suffered and rose again the third day,
ascended into heaven
and cometh to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus was made flesh, and, as a human, suffered – the doctrine of Incarnation.

The specification here again is directed against various “heretics,” but Jews too would and did object to the idea that God could also somehow be (or become) human.

And in the Holy Ghost. lit. holy spirit.

Holy spirit is how God communicates with Prophets; Holy spirit comes upon individuals in the NT when they are baptized; Holy Spirit infuses the Church.

Christ and the Christian message:

Full discussion in the website; Charles Hedrick seems to be a learned Protestant layperson, an Elder but not a Minister.

Much of Christian theology revolves around the following themes: sin, forgiveness, justification, sanctification, faith in Christ, grace, the atoning power of Christ’s death, union with Christ, triumph over death. In a word: salvation.


  • The differences between Catholics and Protestants do not concern us here.

  • Important link with Judaism: resurrection, final judgment, “heaven” and “hell”

Christian books

The Christian message is contained in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) – the subject of our course;

and more particularly in the New Testament, a collection of 27 books:


  • 4 Gospels, Acts, 21 letters (or epistles) (of which 13 are attributed to Paul), and Revelation (also called Apocalypse)

  • The formation of this collection seems to have begun, or at least have been hastened, by a need to respond to Marcion and other “heretics”; our collection of 27 books is not securely attested until the middle of the fourth century CE.

  • See Grant.

The Church

  • Christians are God’s chosen people. Christians constitute the “True Israel,” replacing the Jews (a doctrine known as Supersessionism, from the verb “supersede”).

  • The Church is the union of all believers in Jesus

  • The Church is the body of Christ

  • The Church, through its bishops and other leaders, who are the successors to the apostles, preserves “tradition”

  • Like Jews, Christians too need community for the full expression of their religious life; but the Catholic idea of “the church” is far more institutional than anything in Judaism (or Protestantism, for that matter)

Last major point:

The attitudes of Christians to the Hebrew Bible have varied enormously over the centuries.



  • Marcion was defeated and declared a heretic in antiquity, but many/most Christians persist in seeing the God of the “Old Testament” as an angry/vengeful/bellicose God, and the God of the New Testament as the God of love and peace. Marcion would agree.

  • Many Christians regard the Hebrew Bible as “Jewish” and see the biblical characters as “Jews.”

  • These perspectives are much disputed by Justin Martyr, as we shall see, who argues that the entire Hebrew Bible is not Jewish but Christian, and that the God of the Hebrew Bible is the same God who is the creator of the world and father of Christ.


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