What did the earliest Christians preach?
Kerygma is a Greek word which means “proclamation, announcement, preaching.” Kerygma has, however, become something of a technical term in New Testament studies. Professor C.H. Dodd, in his influential book The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development, used the term kerygma to describe the earliest “preaching” (i.e., public proclamation) of Christians. He distinguishes it from didache, which is doctrine (or, perhaps anachronistically stated, Sunday School). Whereas kerygma is meant to bring converts into the church, didache is meant to train people who have already converted.
What were the earliest Christian “proclamations” intended to attract new converts? According to Professor Dodd, the earliest kerygma can be found in Acts. Among the most important references:
• Acts 2, Peter is recorded as giving a speech on the day of Pentecost;
• Acts 3, Peter’s speech after healing the lame man;
• Acts 7, Stephen’s speech before his martyrdom;
• Acts 10, Peter’s speech to the gentile Cornelius.
No doubt there could be the usual arguments about the dating and authorship of Acts. Given that I accept a dating in the 70s and authorship by a companion of Paul who visited the Jerusalem Church himself, I find these objections unpersuasive. But even if we suppose a later date and nontraditional authorship for Acts, there is still reason to think that the material is early:
Scholars have discovered that the language used in speaking about Jesus in these early speeches in Acts is quite different from that used at the time when the book was compiled in its final form. It is also quite different from even the letters of Paul, which were certainly written long before the book of Acts. So we may be reasonably certain that here we have very early sources.Dr. John Drane, Introducing the New Testament, page 99.
C.H. Dodd notes a negative and positive reason for concluding that these speeches are largely based on early material:
(a) Negatively, there are few, if any, ideas or expressions introduced which might arouse suspicion because of their resemblance to writings emanating, like the Acts, from the Gentile Church in the late first century; nor are there any echoes, even in turns of speech, of the distinctively Pauline theology, though the author, whoever he may have been, must have been associated with the Pauline wing of the Church.4. To suppose that this is due to deliberate archaism is to attribute to the author of Acts a modern view of historical writing.
(b) Positively, the speeches in question, as well as parts of the narrative in which they are embedded, have been shown to contain a large element of Semitism. Nor is this Hebraism of the kind which results from an imitation of the translation-Greek of the Septuagint, and which can be traced in other parts of the Lucan work. It can be shown to be Aramaism, of a kind similar to that which we recognize in the report of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. There is therefore a high degree of probability that the author was laying under contribution an Aramaic source or sources, whether written or oral, and whether the work of translation had already been done, or whether he translated it for himself.
In short, there is good reason to suppose that the speeches attributed to Peter in the Acts are based upon material which proceeded from the Aramaic-speaking Church at Jerusalem, and was substantially earlier than the period at which the book was written.
The message of these first speeches is so consistent that Professor Dodd believed that they consisted of a regular pattern of statements that were made about Jesus from the earliest times. These statements included:
1. The age of fulfillment of God's salvation plan has dawned.
Acts 2:15-22 (“But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel ....”). See also 3:8, 24.
2. This fulfillment is occurring through Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.
Acts 2:22-24 (“Men of Israel, hear these words, Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst...whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it . . . . This Jesus God was raised up, of which we are all witnesses.”). See 3:13-14, 15, 22; 4:10.
3. Through his resurrection, Jesus has been exalted in heaven.
Acts 2:33 (“Therefore, being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out whish which you now see and hear.”). See also 3:53; 5:31.
4. The Holy Spirit has been given to the church as a sign of Jesus' continuing presence.
Acts 2:33 (see above).
5. Men and women who hear the message should respond to it.
Acts 2:38 (“Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”).
Much of this kerygma is confirmed by another early source, Paul's writings. In 1 Cor. 15:3-4, he remarks "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,...." Here obviously is God's salvation plan unfolding ("according to the scripture"), by means of Jesus' death and resurrection. In Gal. 1:4: "who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father." Jesus' death is seen as effecting God's salvation plan. See also Rom. 4:9, 8:9, 31-34; . There is also an emphasis on Jesus' coming in power (1 Cor. 4:5; 1 Thess. 1:10). As well as Jesus being exalted in power after his resurrection. (2 Cor. 5:10; Rom 8:31-34; 1 Cor. 15:25). Thus, Paul's writings -- our earliest Christian ones -- confirm the central core of early Christian proclamation.
Just as Billy Graham’s crusade appeals should not be taken as exhaustive of evangelical Christian beliefs, Professor Dodd’s list should not be taken as an exhaustive list of early Christian beliefs. But it does provide us with important information: these are the earliest and most central beliefs of the young Christian movement. And common to all of them is the death and resurrection of Jesus as symbolic of God's unfolding salvation plan, by which Jesus brought with him the dawn of a new age in history. (Acts 2:22-24; 3:13-15; 7:56; 10:39-40; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; Gal. 1:4; Rom. 4:9, 8:9, 31-34).
This is all very Jewish and focuses directly on God's intervention in historical events. Through Jesus, God intervened in human history in order to fulfill the promises of salvation He had provided through his prophets and the Hebrew scriptures. As noted by I. Howard Marshall, "[t]he kergyma contains reference to the historical Jesus." I Believe in Jesus, page 82. Helpfully, Marhsall refers to "an important book by Graham N. Stanton, Jesus of Nazareth in New Testament Preaching [which demonstrates] that in the preaching of the early church the historical Jesus occupied an important plain; and that this is true not just of the later period but of the earlier period also." Ibid.
There are a number of implications to Dodd's persausive analysis. First, there is no room in early Christian proclamations for a mythical Jesus. The earliest teachings of Christians was that Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected amongst us. He was then exalted into heaven. His life, death, and resurrection has inaugurated God's salvation age. Second, it demonstrates that the core of Paul's teachings was very similar to that of the Jerusalem Church. This is hardly surprising given that Paul himself tell us in Galatians that he laid his gospel before the Jerusalem Church for their approval, and received it. Yet the idea still faces opposition. Third, the author of Acts has managed to preserve very early traditions about the early Christians. Whether a companion of Paul or not, he had access to excellent sources and intended to pass them along to us (just as he says in his prefaces). Finally, it provides further evidence that the author of Acts followed the more conservative ancient historical school on reporting speeches. They should follow as closely as possible the essence of what was actually said. I've written a related article on the subject of the speeches in Acts here.