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The Origins of Christianity

J K Elliot examines sources on the New Testament and early Christians.

'Gospel Truth' in popular speech implies incontrovertible fact, but for those who wish to examine Christian origins objectively the truths embedded in the New Testament in general or in the gospels in particular are not the unvarnished facts desired by the historian. Although it is the case that Christian believers of a fundamentalist persuasion would have us read the New Testament in a literal and uncritical way, such a reading of these texts is incompatible with the nature of this literature and contrary to the original aims of their authors. The historian of the earliest Christianity is both better off and worse off than most researchers into ancient history: 'better off' because he has access to documents written within thirty years of the events recorded; 'worse off' because these documents are works of theology and, as such, are concerned to evoke religious faith in the reader rather than to satisfy historical curiosity. This aim implies a bias more blatant than is often the case with those ancient documents which, on the surface at any rate, purport to he objective.

To a more marked degree than in most historical research, work on the New Testament is influenced by its being regarded in some quarters with reverence or as if, in a book with the status of scripture, infallibility is one of its characteristics. However, although the New Testament eventually became the foundation charter of Christianity, its contents were not composed as scripture. Later generations spoke of it as the word of God: the original authors would have been surprised both by such a description, and by the preservation of their works, which for the most part seem to have been written to answer a pressing local need.

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