The doctrine of Trinity, which is one of the fundamental constituents of Christian dogma, was absent from Christianity during the lifetime of Jesus Christ. The maximum one can grant is that this doctrine started taking shape after the Crucifixion. It took many centuries for it to reach its final well-defined but inexplicable form. It went through a long process of extremely bitter and controversial debates between Christian theologians and philosophers representing different religious, cultural and traditional backgrounds.
It was greatly influenced by the myths and the traditions of various lands which hosted Christianity in its early period. The main stem of Christianity, however, which took care of and nurtured the development of Christian beliefs and philosophy in its early formative part was of Jewish stock. Jewish influence remained predominant throughout the early part of Christian history. The disciples of Jesus who learnt and understood Christianity directly from Jesus and witnessed it in the form of his life, belonged to this stock. They were the primary custodians of Christianity with deeply embedded roots in the holy soil of Jesus’ instructions and way of life. It was they who witnessed the Crucifixion and had seen Jesus survive from his attempted murder.
The First Followers of Jesus
Early Christians appear to have been fundamentally divided over both the nature of Jesus and whether to adhere to the Mosaic Law or not. In the second phase of Christian development, St. Paul acquired the most pivotal character in giving Christianity a new philosophy and ideology. There were fundamental differences of opinion between Paul and James the Righteous. While James looked after the Jerusalem Church, Paul was preaching in the West, particularly to the gentiles. The Western Church evolved along Pauline doctrinal lines, whereas the Church in Jerusalem developed along monotheistic teachings.
One offshoot of James’ ministry were the Ebionites, a sect whose name derives from the Hebrew ebionim meaning ‘the meek’ or ‘the poor’. They were the Jewish Christians, for whom Jesus took on the mantle of Messiah and not that of the ‘Son of God’. They followed the Mosaic law with great zeal, and had their own Gospel known in various contexts as the ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’, ‘Gospel of the Ebionites’ or the ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes’. Here is a description of the Ebionites drawn from various sources.
In his book The History of the Church written in the 4th century AD in Ceasaraea, Eusebius mentions the Ebionites in Book 3, Vespasian to Trajan. He mocks their views, saying that their name comes from their poor and mean opinion of Jesus. The Ebionites regarded Jesus as mortal and esteemed him as righteous through the growth of his character. As Jews, they observed the Sabbath; every detail of the Law, and did not accept the Pauline idea of salvation through faith alone. He also talks of another group of Ebionites who accepted the virgin birth and the Holy Spirit, but refused to accept Jesus’ pre-existence as ‘God the Word and Wisdom’. They followed a ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’ which could possibly have been St. Matthew’s Gospel. They observed the Sabbath and the Jewish system, but celebrated the resurrection.1
In his book describing the background
of the Ebionites, R Eisenman in The Dead Sea Scrolls
Uncovered writes that James (the ‘Zaddik’ or ‘Zadok’, meaning Righteous)
was the leader of the Jerusalem Church in the middle of the first century (40–60
AD approx.) The branch which was retrospectively called Jewish Christianity
in Palestine. The Ebionites developed from this branch.2
The Community who followed James
were known as ‘the Poor’, (Galatians 2:10, James 2:3–5) a designation mentioned
both in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In many ways,
Eisenman feels that the Ebionites were similar to the authors of the Dead Sea
Scrolls. They honoured James the Righteous, and believed Jesus to be their
mortal Messiah, while Paul had become an Apostate for
the Law. They observed the Law and the Sabbath with great zeal.
They held James in the highest
regard, while Paul was considered ‘The Enemy’, (Matt 13:25–40).
According to Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in The Messianic Legacy, the source of the original teachings of the Ebionites, Gnostics, Manicheans, Sabians, Mandeans, Nestorians and Elkasites has been described as the Nazarene philosophy. They refer to Nazarene thought as:
‘An orientation towards Jesus and his teachings which derives ultimately from the original Nazarene position, as articulated by Jesus himself, then propagated by James, Jude or Judas Thomas and their immediate entourage.’ Their beliefs were:
- strict adherence to the Mosaic
- recognition of Jesus as Messiah
- belief in the normal human
birth of Jesus
- hostility towards Pauline views
There is a collection of Arabic manuscripts kept in a library in Istanbul which contains quotes from a 5th or 6th Century text ascribed to the ‘al-nasara’, written in Syriac and found in a monastery in Khuzistan in south-west Iran near the Iraq border. It reflects the views of the Nazarene hierarchy escaping from Jerusalem after the destruction in 66 AD. It refers to Jesus as a human being and stresses the Judaic Law. Paul’s followers ‘abandoned the religion of Christ and turned towards the religious doctrines of the Romans.’4
Of all the various doctrines which evolved during the formative stages of Christianity, only those who believed in the Nazarene philosophy can justifiably be given preference. These early Christians were taught the meaning of Christianity by Jesus himself.
The Role of St. Paul
Evidently St. Paul and his school do not belong there. In fact, from the time of St. Paul onwards, as Christianity spread to alien lands and pagan faiths within the Roman Empire, it began to be powerfully influenced and bent by the cultures and mythologies prevalent in those lands and went further away from its nascent purity. St. Paul did his bit in influencing the deterioration of the Christian thought by introducing his own brand of mysticism. He was neither of Jewish stock nor did he have any direct contact with Jesus, except through his claimed vision. He was already, it seems, under the powerful influence of the alien cultures.
Apparently there were two options available to St. Paul, either to fight the strenuous battles against a world of superstitions, myths and legends prevalent in the lands of the Roman Empire from times immemorial or to give in to them and let Christianity change to suit their requirements and ambitions. This gave them the message that Christianity was not essentially different from their legends and myths. He found the adoption of the second option far more profitable and convenient and let Christianity change to suit the ambitions and philosophies popular in the gentile world.
This strategy worked well in as much as it gained a great number of converts to the new faith which otherwise would not have been easily available. But at what cost. Unfortunately, it ended up only in an unholy competition between noble Christian values and pagan myths. What St. Paul changed was only the names of the pagan gods and replaced them with Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Ghost. It was not him in fact who invented the myth of Trinity and introduced it to the pagan world in the name of Christianity, on the contrary he borrowed the myth of the Trinity from pagan mythology and bonded it to Christianity. From then on it was the same old paganism but with new names and new faces.
Pauline Christianity, therefore, did not succeed in changing the doctrines, myths and superstitions of the pagan world but only ended in changing Christianity in accordance with them. If the mountain did not respond to his call, he decided to go to the mountain.
The Reality of Jesus
Of course it is anybody’s prerogative to choose between Pauline Christianity and that of James the Righteous and other early leaders of Christianity who were the disciples of Jesus Christ himself. But here we want to establish the point that the main stock of Christianity continued to develop along unitarian lines and kept itself aloof from the later innovations which generated the rigmarole and complexities of Christian dogmas such as the godhead of Jesus as the Son, the Trinity, Inherited Sin, Redemption, physical revival of Jesus, etc. The views of the early leaders of the Church, among whom James the Righteous is prominent, were simple and honest and had no internal contradictions or paradoxes hiding behind a smoke screen of mystery. A study of the history of Unitarianism in Christianity establishes beyond question the fact that the Unity of God, uncomplicated by the slogan of Trinity, remained the official doctrine of the true Church of Christ in its pristine purity.
Please remember that this short treatise is not an attempt to convert Christians to any faith other than that of Christ. It is simply a genuine effort to invite the Christians back to the pure unadulterated faith and practice of Jesus himself. It is a sincere attempt to revert the fiction back to the facts of Christianity. Facts that are certainly as beautiful as they are realistic and satisfy both the head and the heart.
For almost two thousand years, it is not the legends woven around the reality of Jesus Christ that has kept Christianity together and has helped it to survive the challenges of reason and ever growing enlightenment borne out of scientific progress, nor is its survival due to the mystic belief of Trinity. What has held the truth and essence of Christianity together is the beauty of the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is the divine conduct and not the divine person of Jesus that has been so beautiful to adhere to. It was the suffering, patience and perseverance for the sake of noble ideals and his bold upright rejection of all despotic attempts to make him change his principles that is the real backbone of Christianity. It is still as beautiful and as loveable today as it was ever before. It has influenced so powerfully the Christian minds and hearts that they remain bonded to Jesus and would much rather shut their eyes to logical discrepancies than to break away from him.
His real greatness lies in the fact that he transcended and conquered the forces of darkness that had conspired to vanquish him despite being a frail human being and no more than a human being. That victory of Jesus is something to be shared with pride by the children of Adam. As we see it from the Muslim vantage point, he is one of the most noble progeny of Adam who taught humanity by his example of perseverance in the face of extreme suffering and pain. Not to surrender but to remain steadfast in the teeth of extreme trial was the noblest achievement of Jesus. It was his life of suffering and pain that redeemed humanity and made him conquer death. If he had accepted death voluntarily, it would have been tantamount to an attempt to escape his state of suffering. How can one conceive this to be an act of bravery. Even the act of those who commit suicide, under extreme pressure, is taken to be a mere act of cowardice. To share suffering in life is far better than to escape suffering through death. Hence the concept of the supreme sacrifice of Jesus by accepting death for the sake of humanity is hollow sentimality with no substance in it.
The greatness of Jesus, we again insist, lay in his supreme sacrifice during his lifetime. All his life, he defied the temptations to give in and exchange a life of suffering with that of ease and comfort. Day in, day out he confronted death but refused to give in and lived for the sake of the sinful to bring them to life. He conquered death not by surrendering himself to death, but by refusing to bow down to it. He defeated it roundly and emerged from its clutches where a lesser man would have perished. Thus he proved his truth and the truth of his word beyond a shadow of doubt. That is how we see Jesus and that is why we love him so. His voice was the voice of God and not the voice of his own ambitions. He said what he was commissioned to say, neither more nor less than what God had told him to say. He worshipped God throughout his life and worshipped Him alone and never did he require any mortal to bow before himself or before his mother or the Holy Ghost. This is the reality of Jesus to which we invite the Christians of all denomination and faiths to return.
The Continuity of Religion
We believe in the continuity and universality of religions. That is why Islam lays such emphasis on the institution of Prophethood as a universal phenomenon. Which means that prophets have to be accepted in their totality. Rejection of one out of the community of prophets would be tantamount to rejection of all because, in fact, one bows to the prophets only in view of their hailing from the same source. In this context, the term ‘continuity’ should be understood as something that is similar but not exactly like the evolution of life. We believe in the progressiveness of the message, advancing in step with general human progress in all spheres of human activity. It appears that the earlier forms of revealed religions, though possessing the same fundamental teachings, covered relatively smaller areas of detailed instruction. That is to say, a smaller number of do’s and don’ts. These then gradually grew into a larger number of imperatives and prohibitions covering a wider field of human activity. Also, it appears that religions belonging to the ancient civilizations addressed themselves to comparatively smaller audience belonging to particular tribes or clans or regions. Their messages were confined to the requirements of the time. They could be more aptly described as tribal, clannish or national religions. The case of the Children of Israel and Judaic teachings is a fitting illustration to prove the point.
The historic trend of development, therefore, can be summarised as two-fold:
- a progressive elaboration and comparative perfection of the teachings.
- a progressive shift from smaller to larger denominations.
Continuity does not mean that the same religion that was revealed to Adam continued to address mankind and underwent a gradual progressive change, widening its field of instruction and address. What is meant is that in different parts of the world, where different civilizations took root and flourished, Divine revelations gave birth to such religions with corresponding social developments of man in those parts of the world. All of these religions, however, were developing in the same general direction.
The Apex of Religious Development
Of all such religious denominations, we believe the one in the middle east was being nurtured and cultured to give birth to such major religions as would serve the main stem of religious evolution in the world. This is quite evident from a study of religious history. Judaism followed by Christianity followed by Islam, clearly indicates the direction of the evolution of religious teachings. Among these religions, the progression of teachings can easily be traced back and forth and is found to be deeply interrelated. It is highly important, therefore, to understand this grand scheme of things which was to result and did result in the consummation of these teachings in the form of a universal religion, that is Islam.
In this context it is in the interest of the Jews to seriously and without prejudice try to understand the importance of Jesus Christ. Having failed to recognise him, the case of the Jews is like so many animal species buried deep in the history of evolution, no longer playing any vital role in the evolving tree of life nearing its summit. As such, it remains only as a remnant of history but still continuing to survive in its own narrow sphere of existence.
Again the case of the Christians is similar to that of the Jews, only they stand a step ahead of them, closer to Islam in the chronological order. Most importantly, however, those deviations from the path of Jesus Christ into a decadent course which was originally set for them by St. Paul has virtually led them even farther away from Islam than the Jews. The Jews, after more than four thousand years of their existence, have at least learnt the lesson of Unity which is vital for the spiritual life of any religion. Yet despite this closeness to Islam in the basic doctrines, there are other factors which make the Jews even more adamant in refusing to accept Islam in large numbers.
This study leaves me to believe that unless the Jews develop that frame of mind and attitude which is a requisite for the understanding of Christ, despite their doctrinal similarities, they will remain farther apart from Islam than the Christians. They have missed a most vital link, that is Jesus Christ, between them and the advent of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. This denial of truth has hardened them to such a degree that they are not psychologically prepared to accept any new message. They continue to wait for Christ, while Christ has come and gone. Having failed to recognise him once, they are far less likely to recognise him again during his second advent. They are destined, it seems, to be waiting for the Christ of their dreams eternally.
It was Christ who was to prepare the pathway to the following higher order religion which is Islam. This statement should not be taken too rigidly. We are not suggesting that the Jews should first accept Christianity and then take the next step into Islam. It would be too naive a view of religious manifestations as they take place. What we are trying to point out is that a people who have rejected a prophet or a messenger, who was not just an ordinary prophet but was to play a very important role in the task of mental and spiritual training of that people, do so only when they are spiritually and psychologically ill. Unless this malady is cured and that distorted attitude towards truth is rectified, they are less likely to follow a prophet who happens to be placed beyond the link they have already missed.
As far as the Christian attitude is concerned, they can only be led to the truth of Prophet Muhammad, if they return to the truth and reality of Jesus Christ. He was not only the way to God, but also like all the other prophets was the way to the prophet who was destined to follow him.
Jesus was only the middle link in the parable of vineyard. The last consummate representation of God was yet to come. Therefore, unless the Christians return from the false, imaginary and mythical image of Jesus Christ to the much loftier and nobler reality of their holy master, they cannot be directed on to the path that connected him with Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing of Allah be upon him.
Prophet Muhammad was a reality and not a fiction and it is only realities which lead to other realities. Therefore, it would be the fact of Christ, rather than the fiction he has been turned into, which would bless Christians to recognise the truth of Prophet Muhammad.
air is foul, and foul is fair.’3
- Eusebius, The History of the Church pages 90–91, (Penguin
- The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, R. Eisenman and M. Wise,
pg 186, (Element Books, 1992)
- Ibid. pg 233–34
- The Messianic Legacy. M. Baigent, R. Leigh, H. Lincoln,
pg 135–138 (Corgi Books)