My Beliefs after 50 years of study
July 7, 2017
Since 1964, when I first went to Elder McPherson, the local SDA preacher in Merced, CA, and asked to have my name removed from the church roster, I have been searching for what is the real truth. At first, I studied other religions, such as Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and several others. I found problems with all of them, either Biblically or philosophically.
In 1966, while stationed on the island of Okinawa, I first studied Buddhism and found some of what I had been looking for—a religion that believed that life was about making the world a better place, one person at a time, starting (and ending) with yourself. They were not about spreading the “Truth”. In 2500 years, no Buddhist has invaded another country to convert them, threatened anybody with death or damnation if they don’t accept the message, or insisted that they are the only ones with the “Truth”. However, if you ask nicely, they might share ideas that seem to work for them. We never quit looking for better ideas!
I never quit studying early Christianity, though. I was intrigued by how the Christian religion came to worship on Sunday, and not Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. This obsession came naturally, having been raised Seventh-day Adventist.
I had been taught that the Catholic Church changed the day to Sunday at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. It didn’t take a lot of study to show this was wrong by at least 200 years. Eventually some SDA theologians saw the error of that scenario, including Samuele Bacchiocchi, who wrote an informative book on the history, using his access to original Vatican documents.
I have since wondered why, if was so wrong for the Catholic Church to change the day of worship, why does the SDA church only accept the 27 books that the Catholic Church chose for them as the official canon of the New Testament at Hippo Regius in 398 AD? Makes no sense to me!
Since the Books of the New Testament are almost completely silent on any change of days of worship, my research extended to the other books that didn’t get put into the official list of 27 books approved by the Catholic church 360 years after Jesus died on the cross. There are many more books by different writers espousing all the other variants of Christian thought in the first four hundred years of the making of the Christian Church.
After years of comparing the original writings, I had to conclude that our present New Testament tries to hide the perception that there were actually two main church bodies almost from the start. Acts 15 kind of alludes to the problem, but does not conclude with any resolution to the fundamental differences between the church of James, based in Jerusalem, and the churches founded by Paul in Asia Minor and Greece, based in Antioch.
First, I’ll attempt to convey my understanding of the major beliefs of both churches, and then I’ll go into my sources for coming to my understanding.
The Church of James
As evident in Galations, Romans, and the book of James, the southern church in Jerusalem, led by James the brother of Jesus, was Jewish in every respect that I can find. They believed that all men are required to be circumcised, that the dietary laws of Leviticus were still in effect, that they were not to eat with Gentiles, or partake of any food offered to other gods, including the Roman Emperor. They were only Christian in that they believed that Jesus had come to bring new truth to the old laws in the Torah, and that keeping those laws was still vital for salvation. They believed that Jesus was a prophet of God, but I can find nothing that makes me believe they considered Jesus the Son of God, or divine himself. That would have been anathema to any observant Jew, which they obviously still were.
Yes, they believed he was the Messiah, but that is not a recognition of divinity. The word means “Anointed One” and refers to a person anointed by God. (The word Christ is the same word in Greek, and means the same thing). They were looking for the coming Anointed One who would restore the throne of David, drive out the Romans and make Israel great again!
Disappointingly, I cannot find proof that James’ church kept the Jewish Sabbath, although that would seem to be self evident.
However, it occurs to me that they were avid students of Jesus’ teachings, considering him a great rabbi, and if anyone had a lot to say about the Sabbath, it was Jesus. Several times he took the Jewish leaders to task for their zealous enforcement of the burdensome rules concerning the Sabbath. He told them the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. It was not to be a test of your righteousness, or your faithfulness to the details of Jewish law. Of course you can pick up and carry your bedroll, if you have been healed and can do it. Of course you can help your bull get out of the ditch where he got stuck, no matter how much work that might entail. (I’ve done that…It’s a lot of work!) Of course you can rub the husks off the wheat before you eat it. That’s not the same as harvesting or threshing grain.
I think Jesus might might actually have gotten his point across on the Sabbath to all his followers. If you read the original commandment in Exodus, with your eyes open to the meaning of the words, it is a command to the people in charge (ranchers, business owners, heads of households, etc.) to let their employees, slaves, family and even the animals have a day off once a week. It is a day to take a break, relax if you can, do something you can’t do during the workweek. It’s all about the weekend. In other words, TGIF, right there in the Bible.
The Church of Paul
Paul’s churches, on the other hand, have a completely different theology. Jesus is the Son of God, come to earth to offer himself for the sins of the world. He is the divine redeemer of the debt that every human owes because of sin. And most importantly for the believers, his sacrifice released man from the bondage of the law. The old Jewish law is gone, replaced by Jesus’ new law, love.
If you love your brother, who needs a law to tell you not to kill him? And if you restrain yourself from killing him according to the law, and you just call him an idiot, why is that no different than killing him, according to Jesus? Because you did not have love in your heart, which is all that matters now.
Paul did not believe keeping the law, or doing good deeds will lead to salvation. For him, it’s not what you do that saves you, it’s who you are. You must be a person who has accepted God’s love into your heart. Love will lead you to act with compassion and mercy. And if you are not perfect, God’s grace will make up the difference.
Paul wrote, “Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8 He also wrote, after listing some of the Ten Commandments that are superseded by Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbors: therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
You do not need to submit to circumcision, you do not need to worry about the dietary laws, and you may associate with non Jews now as equals—because we are not Jews anymore—we are Christians. There is a good reason the believers were first called Christians at Antioch, Paul’s church. They were distinctly and adamantly not Jewish, as the followers of James in Jerusalem were.
For sure, the followers of Paul did not keep the Jewish Sabbath. There is no record that they kept holy any day. The first instance I can find where Paul’s church recognizes any day is in the Letter of Barnabas, written around 100-130 A.D. “Therefore also we celebrate the eighth day with gladness, for on it Jesus rose from the dead, and appeared, and ascended into heaven.” Letter of Barnabas 15:9. It’s the eighth day, the one after the old Jewish Sabbath, because in the chapter previously he is comparing the world before their time as days of the week, and they are starting a new week. I especially love how the language changes from “keeping holy” and “observing” the day to “celebrate” and “gladness”. I think they understood Jesus’ message on the Sabbath commandment also.
Paul also said, “Some people keep one day holy, some don’t keep any day holy at all. It doesn’t matter—God doesn’t care.” Romans 14:5,6 (Rogers 2017 paraphrase). He dismisses the Jewish dietary laws by writing, “Some people eat anything, and some people are vegetarian, It doesn’t matter—God doesn’t care.” Romans 14:2,3 (Rogers 2017 paraphrase)
Paul writes, “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the Law, then Christ is dead in vain.”
I think Paul understood Jesus’ message better than the original Apostles. Much of Jesus’ ministry consisted of him castigating the Jewish priests and leaders for obsessively keeping every little nuance of the Law perfectly, but for naught, because they didn’t have love in their hearts. Paul’s fundamental belief is that God is love, and we must believe and accept him into our hearts for salvation. God’s love in us will change us to become a new person, with love and compassion for everyone.
Contrast that with James: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. - - So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. - - But wilt thou know, Oh vain man, that faith without works is dead?” I have little doubt that the appellation “Vain Man” refers to Paul. As Acts 15:2 makes clear, Paul and Barnabas had “no small disputation with them” (referring to James and Peter).
The Islam Connection.
Several books by Muslims have been published recently which offer the intriguing possibility that the religion Mohammed founded in Arabia in the seventh century AD may have been heavily influenced by, or be an extension of the remnants of James’ church in Jerusalem, which was scattered by the invasion of Titus in 70 AD. What few survivors left alive would have been driven out of the country, possibly into Arabia.
Consider this passage from the introduction to The Gospel of Barnabas,
“the great and wonderful God hath during these past days visited us by his prophet Jesus Christ in great mercy of teaching and miracles, by reason whereof many, being deceived of Satan, under presence of piety, are preaching most impious doctrine, calling Jesus son of God, repudiating the circumcision ordained of God for ever, and permitting every unclean meat: among whom also Paul hath been deceived, whereof I speak not without grief;
Even though this was written by a Muslim in the early centuries of the
founding of Islam, it perfectly describes the doctrines and beliefs of James’ church in Jerusalem, and characterizes Paul as “deceived”, which matches James’ opinion of Paul.
I can see many pleasant hours of research and study as I continue to learn of the fascinating interplay between the three Abrahamic religions that have come to dominate the world.
“Zealot” - the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan
“The Islamic Jesus” - How the King of the Jews became a Prophet of the Muslims, by Mustafa Akyol
“Paul Among the People” The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, by Sarah Ruden
“Gospel of Barnabas” by Anonymous (Muslim)
“Letter of Barnabas” by Anonymous (follower of Barnabas)
“New Testament” by various writers (Paul predominating)
“Lost Christianities” by Bart Ehrman
“From Sabbath to Sunday” by Samuel Bacchiocchi
“The Church History” by Eusebius, Trans. by Paul L. Maier
“Unearthing the Lost Words of Jesus” the Discovery and Text of the “Gospel of Thomas” by John Dart & Ray Riegert
“From Jesus to Christianity” by L. Michael White