The Muslim Contention
The earliest Christian communities consisted of such groups as the Ebionites, the Nazerenes, Cerinthians, Basilidians, Carpocrations, Hypsistarians, Symmachians and Elkaisites who believed in the true teaching of Jesus.
The Ebionites ‘poor persons’ were the genuine original Christians and they go back to the earliest period of Christian history when most Christians were Jews and observed the Jewish Law. These
Christians eventually became a distinct group (as did the Gnostics) but gradually folded due to Gentile pressure as true Christianity changed, thereafter they were categorised as heretics and were persecuted.
They were pure Unitarians who believed Jesus was the Messiah and preached him as such and for this reason they were persecuted by the Jews. They had no ambition to preach outside of Jewry. They repudiated the Apostle Paul and saw Jesus as an exceptional man in the line of the prophets but denied his virgin birth. They followed the example of Jesus and so were circumcised, observed the Sabbath and taught all the precepts of the law. They celebrated Easter on the same day as the Passover and they held the city of Jerusalem in high esteem.
The Unitarian concept of God was also kept alive in the primitive genuine church by the Elkesaites. This group also represented a type of Jewish Christianity holding to pure monotheism and keeping in honour the rite of circumcision and the observation of the Sabbath; their Christology was similar to the Ebionites. Another Jewish Christian group who preserved pure monotheism in the early church are the Symmachians along with them the Nazerenes had an important function in the role of the early church.
Muhammad through his revelation has preserved true Jewish Christianity in the teachings of Islam while the church has come to grief through false teaching.
The Christian Response – Jewish Sects
Amongst the above groups a number are regarded by Christians as Jewish sects which came out of what was known as the Judaizing Controversy. The reasons for their coming into existence are detailed briefly below.
Under a background of political unrest in Judea when Jewish opposition to the Romans was developing there was a rising tide of Jewish nationalism. Some Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah never broke out of the Jewish mould and insisted that Gentile converts should keep the requirements of the law (Galatians 2:1-16; 2 Corinthians 3:11;11:15; Acts 15:1,2; 21:17-36). Pressure was being put on Gentiles to be circumcised otherwise some would not consider them to be legitimate inheritors of the Israel of God. The heavily Jewish Jerusalem church under the leadership of James confirmed the right of Gentiles not to be circumcised and recognised that there were two separate apostolates, one to the Jews and one to the Gentiles, affirming that for both the central belief structure of the church was the death and resurrection of Christ. Eventually Jewish Christians had to flee the city of Jerusalem and go to Pella in A.D 68 when Rome laid siege to the city.
It is certain that Jewish believers continued after these times although their history is somewhat vague. The various Jewish sects developed out of this background as the church became predominantly Gentile. Some Jews gave up the Jewish way of life while others remained Jewish but we cannot assume that there was an identity of belief. Gnostic tendencies affected some Christian Jews and this influenced their Christology bringing them into docetic views like the Elkesites whose origins began with Elkesai, who lived during the times of the Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD).
Some Christian Jews continued to live by the law but accepted Gentile Christians under this heading we find the Nazarenes. Knowledge of these groups are known only from the writings of Christians who opposed their heresies. Jerome used the term Nazerenes to broadly cover his references to Christian Jews but Epiphanius distinguished Nazareans (Heresies 29) and Ebionites (ibid.,30) but the term does reflect some confusion.
Others like the Ebionites, developed sectarian tendencies. The Ebionites continued as a sect but later refused to accept Bar-Kochba as the Messiah in his anti-Rome revolt of 132-135. Muslims cannot have thought of them as genuine Christians for the last remnants of the group were destroyed in the Muslim conquest of Syria! Symmachus actually belonged to the Jewish Christian sect of the Ebionites, in the second century. He is remembered chiefly for his translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek which was included in Origen’s Hexapla. A late date shows that Symmachus had no influence on the beginning of Christianity.
The Carpocrations and The Basildians are held up also as fine examples of the primitive church who held to the monotheism subscribed to by Muhammad. The truth is they were Gnostics. Amongst these strange movements, all said to the true church, is the unusual sounding Hypsistarians a fourth century sect which were in Cappadocia but little is known about them apart from comments from Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyassa. From them we understand they developed a syncretistic system which was derived from heathen, Jewish and Christian sources. They were strictly monotheistic and rejected polytheism and the Trinity. They observed the Jewish Sabbath and Levitical foods. Nothing is known about them apart from the comments of Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyassa.
The Muslim Contention
The early Christian believers held to a Unitarianism in common with Muslim belief and that up until 250 CE the Christian creed was simply ‘I believe in God, the Almighty’ and that only later did they introduce a Trinitarian doctrine.
The Christian Response
The details of the earliest Christian communities are not to be found from the above sources but from the historical New Testament record which focuses upon the early churches of Jerusalem and Judea. Churches were established in Judea within three years or so of Paul’s conversion (1 Thessalonians 2:14, Galatians 1:22). It was the doctrine of these early churches that caused Paul the Jew to persecute them (Galatians 1:13). Their beliefs must have been schismatic and blasphemous completely opposed to the orthodoxy of Paul for these churches had a belief system which did not fit in with the ‘traditions of the fathers’ (Galatians 1:15). This is our earliest window into the original churches and it shows an exalted view of Jesus Christ.
The creeds underpinned Christian theology and were needed to prevent false doctrine entering the church. They all reflected a Trinitarian pattern and naturally began with God. In the East Christian belief was expressed as ‘I believe in one God’ while in the West ‘I believe in God’. The Eastern Church may have added the word ‘one’ because the East was more open to polytheism but both expressions mean the same.
It is uncertain as to who wrote the first Christian confessions of faith but confessions were based on the New Testament as for example ‘Jesus is Lord’ (Philippians 2:11). The earliest confessions were made by baptismal candidates in the early church when they were asked to affirm questions of faith such as: ‘Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?’; ‘Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God?’ The pattern in which they were asked closely resembles the pattern followed in the Apostles Creed but standardisation became slow.
The Muslim Contention – the removal of Unitarian Jewish scriptures by the Gentile Church
Why was the Shepherd of Hermas taken out of the Bible? The early Christians read the ‘Shepherd of Hermas’ for it was considered a revelation in the early church and is found in the Codex Sinaiticus. Now, however, it is excluded from the modern Bible because it teaches that God is one.
The Christian Response
The ‘Shepherd’ was written by an emancipated slave in Rome some time after the Apostolic age and was probably composed in three different stages between 90-140/150 A.D. It does not claim any apostolic authority but is written in the form of an allegory to rouse the lax church and call it to repentance. There are five visions, which are presented in apocalyptic and allegorical genres which make interpretation difficult but the major ethical themes of purity and repentance are clear. It shows light on Jewish Christianity and was read widely in the East. It was included along with the scriptures until the third century and even in Athanasius’ day it was used for catechetical purposes.
The Sinaitic Manuscript is thought to have contained much of the Old Testament but much is now lost and the full New Testament including two non-canonical books namely the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. These books were recognised as being helpful to the early church and were read in public worship yet at the same time they never received recognition that they possessed divine authority. These and a few others were sometimes included in the early manuscripts but it is a mistake to think that every book which was read in the churches was necessarily accorded apostolic standing.