The early church (in Acts of the Apostles)


For AO1 you need to know:

  • The message and format of the Kerygma as presented by C.H. Dodd with reference to Acts 2:13-49 and 3:12-26
  • The challenge to the Kerygma of the historical value of the speeches in Acts.
  • The adapting of the Christian message to suit the audience
  • Bultmann’s views on the Kerygma.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • The historical reliability of the book of Acts.
  • The relevance for today of the Kerygma.


Kerygma is a Greek word used in the New Testament, meaning preaching or proclamation. Biblical scholars use the word to refer to the core of the early Church’s oral tradition about Jesus. It involves the announcement or preaching of doctrines and teachings about and from Jesus. Dodd distinguished Kerygma from “didache”; teachings or doctrine, which was decided on and fixed later. Kerygma is the initial proclamation used to introduce people to Christ and spread the faith.

Dodd thought that Christianity presents itself as a religion linked to history. However, there are many reasons to doubt its historical credibility. Dodd’s ambition was to discover the content of the oral tradition of the Kerygma, so we would have more historical evidence for Jesus as a historical figure.

The question is how valid was the preaching of the Early Church after Jesus, during the period of oral transmission until it was written down? Did the Church represent Jesus in the way that Jesus intended, or did they distort his message?

C. H. Dodd on realised eschatology

Dodd claimed that Christianity presents itself as a historical religion. Dodd viewed the life of Jesus as “realised eschatology”, meaning that “This world has become the scene of a divine drama, in which the eternal issues are laid bare. It is the hour of decision”. Christianity is based on certain events in history which it claims were revelations from God. Dodd concludes that historical research is therefore essential to understanding Christianity.

  • Some historians argued that Christianity had been influenced by other religions in some of its ideas and images.
  • The analytic methods of form critics attempted to unveil the original sources that the authors of the gospels drew on.

Many theologians reacted to such critical analysis of the Bible by denying that Christianity could be anchored in the study of history. Revelation could therefore only be discovered by faith in the Bible, not be reason applied to historical evidence. Karl Barth claimed that the available historical evidence wasn’t sufficient to inform Christian life and that we should rely on faith instead. Bultmann insisted that there just wasn’t enough historical evidence to create a historical profile of Jesus.

Despite such criticism, Dodd still thought that if Christianity is to be understood as realised eschatology, Christianity must be combined with history. He wanted to unify faith in revelation as discovered in the Bible with reason applied to historical evidence. The way this could be achieved was to understand what the original preaching (kerygma) of the early church involved. Since that preaching which took place in oral tradition took place so close to Jesus’ life, it is more historically credible.

Dodd claimed that we have enough historical evidence for a deep understanding of the key aspects of Jesus’ life and teachings because we can rely on the primitive kerygma of the early Christian communities.

C. H. Dodd’s presentation of the Kerygma

Dodd claims: “the Gospel is not a statement of the general truths of religion, but an interpretation of that which once happened”. The Gospels do not contain pure matters of fact because they are influenced by the kerygma of the early church, which was a kind of preaching, not simply a record of doctrine. To properly understand the New Testament, we must therefore try to discover what that preaching involved; the way that the Gospel was spread by the first evangelists. Dodd’s goal was therefore to analyse the Bible and try to figure out what ideas were involved in the very first presentation/proclamation of Christianity by those like the Apostles who first spread the faith. Dodd thinks that if we could get an understanding of that, it would count as additional historical evidence for the historical Jesus, which he thinks is needed to believe in Christianity as a realised eschatology.

The Kerygma is not historical fact, nor is it teaching, though it can include both. It is not simply a memoir of Jesus, because it contains ethical claims that give the reader a decision about whether to engage in its call to moral improvement.

As evidence for its historical reliability, Dodd analysed the Kerygmata of the early Christian community. He claimed that Peter’s speeches in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters both contained six key elements, which adds to their historical credibility as being genuine representations of kerygmata; the way that the Gospel was first preached by the early Church.

  1. The prophesised age of fulfilment, the ‘latter days’ have arrived.
  2. This age has dawned due to the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  3. By being resurrected, Jesus was exalted to the right hand of God as the Messiah of the new Israel.
  4. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the church is a sign of Christ’s exalted power and glory.
  5. The Messianic Age will be completed by the return of Christ.
  6. Those who repent will be offered forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

Dodd pointed out that this is very similar to Mark 1:14-15, where Jesus came to ‘proclaim’ the gospel, saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”.

The early Christians thought the eschaton (final stage of a divine plan) had occurred; the Messiah had come the second coming would happen very soon. When the second coming didn’t happen, readjustment of that expectation was the motivating factor behind the development of early Christian theological thought.

Challenges to the historical value of Acts

The book of Acts is arguably not a historically reliable document. Some argue that Acts is more like a literary creation than a historical document or record. There are various points in favour of this view:

  • Acts is considerably organized, suggesting it has been edited.
  • Paul’s key themes from his letters are not found in the presentation of his preaching in Acts.
  • There are miracle stories which are unscientific.
  • Luke was a Gentile and so would not have been present for some of the events he supposedly wrote about.
  • Dibelius argued that the speeches in Acts were unreliable because they were designed to convert people, therefore they would ultimately have said whatever worked to appeal to the audience.

However, Acts features public events experienced by many people. Arguably, if Acts were a fabrication then there would have been widespread condemnation, but there wasn’t.

Furthermore, B Gartner criticised Dibelius, claiming that the early Church would have insisted on the reliability of Acts. They would not have allowed false preaching that happened to be persuasive in a certain context.

Additionally, If Luke travelled with Paul during his missionary work, he would have been an eyewitness, which adds historical credibility. Similarly, Luke may have been acquainted with the Apostles and been an eyewitness to their spreading of the Gospel. Luke’s intention is to relate how the Gospel was spread by the disciples, which suggests he would get the history right.

The language used by the author is more characteristic of Luke than Paul. This could suggest that Acts was made up by Luke rather than Luke reporting on Paul’s speeches.

The change in Paul’s writing style could be due to the different purposes of Acts compared to his letters. Dodd claimed that the letters of Paul do contain the same key elements of the kerygma as Acts.

The relevance of the Kerygma

Paul’s letters seem to show that during the early church there was a shift from an initial view that the end times would come soon, to the view that the end times would come at some unspecified time in the future. It is this later view which is the common view among Christians today.

This suggests the Kergyma was wrong!

H. Reimarus (18th Century German Philosopher) was the first influential thinker to analyse the historical Jesus; to try and figure out how accurate the Early Church’s presentation of Jesus’ teachings actually was. He accused the apostles of changing the view of Jesus, pointing out that Jesus and the apostles said different things. Reimarus believed that Jesus was just a human who was deluded about being the Messiah. After the Crucifixion, his disciples hid his body so they could pretend he had been resurrected. The disciples then edited Jesus’ claims about an impending apocalypse, transforming them into claims about timeless spiritual truths.

Jesus only did miracles to the faithful. When ‘sensible’ ‘learned’ people requested a miracle for examination, Jesus refused. This meant no sensible or learned people could believe in him.

Jesus’ miracles were only written down 30-60 years after his death, and in a language that Palestinian Jews could not understand. It was also a time of ‘greatest disquietude and confusion’ where very few who knew Jesus still lived. The gospel authors thus had little fear of being understood or refuted, especially considering they also told Christians that it was soul-saving to just believe and have faith. This made it easy for the gospel authors to ‘invent’ the miracles of Jesus, whether out of well-intentioned deceit simply their own credulity.

“and both of these, as is well known, prevailed in the highest degree in the early Christian church.” – Reimarus.

Albert Schweitzer was influenced and inspired by Reimarus. He argued that Jesus really believed that the kingdom of God would come in his lifetime and that it’s likely that Jesus recognised his error before he died. Because of this, Schweitzer regards the kerygmata as worthless. If the early Church was possessed by an apocalyptic viewpoint, as Jesus seemed to be, that the world would soon be ending, then it’s hard to see why their teachings would be relevant since that clearly turned out to be false.

Dodd claimed that while the early Church may have believed in the impending apocalypse, its teachings involves much more than that and so we should still think it relevant. For example, forgiveness and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Early Christians were more focused on their joy that Jesus had risen than the impending end of the world, which explains why the Church had stability.

Dodd’s views on realised eschatology meant that God had already appeared in the world, so connecting with God became possible, it wasn’t necessary to wait for the apocalypse. This connection could be made through ethical living. The early Church focused on forgiveness, community and hope, not the apocalypse.  The fact that Jesus didn’t return wasn’t devastating, as the early Church could just continue their preaching about Christian living.

Dodd proposes that some of the passages that seem to be picturing the apocalypse are actually about the challenges people face when encountering the Kerygma and attempting to integrate it into their life. Some passages certainly do present a belief in an impending apocalypse, but the true core of the Kerygma is the offer of salvation through Christ. That message is relevant regardless of the apocalyptic status.

Bultmann & demythologisation

Bultmann thought that the Bible had become difficult for modern audiences to accept because of how scientifically and historically minded people have become since the enlightenment period. The main issue was that the Bible contains supernatural occurrences, or ‘myths’.

Bultmann observed that two theological approaches developed in response to this problem.

  1. The literalist approach was to believe the myths literally by denying the modern advances in knowledge that contradict them. Bultmann rejected this sort of blind faith as spiritually empty.
  2. The liberal approach ignores the myths and focusing only on the moral teachings found in the Bible. Bultmann rejected this approach because it reduces Christianity to a mere moral philosophy, a set of teachings, rather than an encounter with a way of life.

Bultmann thought there was another approach to the myths in the Bible, which was not to ignore them, nor take them literally, but take them as a record of human spiritual experience which had been put into words fitting ancient culture.

If we could translate the myths into words which would fit modern culture, we might be able to reveal the deeper truths about spiritual experience that they were intended to express. Bultmann called that process ‘demythologizing’, whereby we unearth the deeper meaning the mythic stories were expressing about the early Christian’s encounter with a new spiritual way of life; the early message of Christianity which first spread the faith. This might then give modern audiences a confrontation with the call to a spiritual life committed to Christ.

Bultmann’s approach was to claim that the mythic stories in the Bible were expressions of how the gospel authors experienced the ‘kerygma’, meaning the initial proclamation of Christianity when it was first developing and spreading before the Bible was written. At that time, it was a new religion spread by the apostles and so people heard, felt and experienced that proclamation. What the gospel writers came to write down was their attempt to put that experience of the spiritual impact of Christianity on them into words. The result is a story full of supernatural elements, as that was how people at that time expressed their understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

However, it’s clearly a mistake, therefore, to either take literally or ignore these supernatural elements, as that would be to misunderstand or ignore the key spiritual feature of Christianity. Bultmann proposed that we need to decipher the true deeper meaning that these myths are expressing. Once that is done and put into a format that modern audiences can understand, then they can come into contact with that original proclamation of Christianity and thereby face the same choice about how to live faced by those who first heard the Christian proclamation.

We should therefore demythologise the bible according to Bultmann, which means to re-write it, replacing the stories with the deeper truth they intend to convey.

When the disciples encountered Jesus, something new awakened in them. This is because the kerygma expresses some basic truths about humanity:

  • We are not master of the world
  • Our plans and powers are finite
  • There is a transcendent power in the universe
  • There is forgiveness
  • It is false to think that we can control life
  • It is possible to find a spirit of openness to the future

Bultmann saw two mythologies at work in the New Testament. The first was the Jewish belief in the apocalypse, which history had shown to be false. The second was Gnosticism; a widespread belief that all creation was involved in a spiritual battle featuring demonic forces and humans, each being a ‘spark of light’. A being of light was sent down from God to bring people special knowledge so that out ‘sparks’ could be liberated. Bultmann said Christians adapted this mythology to their own beliefs in Jesus (so the gnostic myths emphasize Jesus’ high status)

For Bultmann, both of these myths are difficult to believe today. However, when the disciples encountered Jesus they had something new awakened in them. This is because the kerygma expresses some basic truths about humanity:

  • We are not master of the world
  • Our plans and powers are finite
  • There is a transcendent power in the universe
  • There is forgiveness
  • It is false to think that we can control life
  • It is possible to find a spirit of openness to the future

The kerygma, for Bultmann, invites us to make a personal decision to commit ourselves to Christ. This can be seen in the reaction people had to the proclamation of the Gospel, as it spread around the world. It is a personal message proclaiming truth about human life that invites a response to live a certain way, which will change and be expressed differently in each generation. For Bultmann, it’s a mistake to view the Kerygma scientifically, historically, or as a doctrine.

N. T. Wright’s criticism of Bultmann. Wright claims that the sources we have for history, such as the Gospels, do not merely and simply tell us something about the gospel writers, but that through their writing we can actually learn something about historical events. So, Wright claims Bultmann goes too far when he reduces the meaning of the Gospels to mere expressions of deeper truths about how the writers felt. Wright acknowledges there is some truth to that but claims that the Gospels actually do also tell us something about what happened in the past.

“Of course, in principle, writers who intend to write about other things than themselves will give you quite a lot of themselves en route, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t telling you about things that actually happened. Yes, you have to read them critically, but you have to be a realist as well. So critical realism.”

Critical Realism is the theory that everyone has their own worldview, their own lens through which they perceive the world, which informs, frames and biases their perception. “Realism” refers to the idea that there is a real world that we can perceive and understand, “critical” refers to the idea that we understand the world from our own evaluative perspective.

Wright accepts that ancient texts involve personal expression on the part of their authors which could include the expression of spiritual experience. However, that only justifies taking a critical view of the text. It does not justify abandoning realism by reducing the entire meaning of the text to expression of personal perspective or experience alone, as Bultmann attempts to do.

The subjectivity issue for Bultmann. Aren’t the ‘deep truth’ Myths intend to convey down to interpretation and therefore subjective? How could we ever know we had ascertained the ‘true’ meaning?

Many parts of the bible seem to be literal. e.g saying Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Nor does the bible anywhere say you shouldn’t take it literally. So is there really biblical support for this view?

Bultmann responds that parts of the bible are myth, whereas other parts are literal.

But then how do we know which parts are which?