Diversity of teaching and early Christianity

I’ve spent some time this evening thinking about the claim that “early Christianity was diverse”.  I have had some difficulty finding anything like a definitive statement or attempt at proof for the claim.  Rather it is simply assumed.  For instance there is this:

The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all in the theological beliefs embraced by people who understood themselves to be followers of Jesus. In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted that there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.

In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that God had created the world. But others believed that this world had been created by a subordinate, ignorant divinity. (Why else would the world be filled with such misery and hardship?) Yet other Christians thought it was worse than that, that this world was a cosmic mistake created by a malevolent divinity as a place of imprisonment, to trap humans and subject them to pain and suffering.[1]

But of course such a statement involves quite a number of presuppositions.

Loudest of these presuppositions is the assumption that there is no such thing as Christianity, objectively.  It is assumed that it has no distinct identity, or boundaries.  Instead the author simply assumes that a “Christian”, in the passage above, is anybody who claims to be somehow a “follower of Jesus”.

Few politicians in modern society would fail this terribly undemanding “test”, however irreligious.  No muslim would fail.  But a criterion that can’t distinguish between Christians and Muslims is simply silly.

Also implicit in this passage is the idea that Christ did not teach anything in particular, and so any teaching attributed to him – however contradictory – is equally “Christian”, and equally based upon his teaching.  Yet Christ was known as a rabbi, a teacher!  His teaching and personality inspired a movement.  That movement claimed to preserve his teachings.  Whether it did so or not, there is no doubt that they tried.

In fact if we look at early Christian literature, we find everywhere a concern for right teaching.  It runs throughout the New Testament, the apostolic fathers, and indeed all the ante-Nicene literature.

This is entirely comprehensible, once we take into account the claim that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal. 3:28).  Every movement must define itself somehow.  If the early church did not define itself by these categories, then what was the unifying principle?  They tell us themselves: it was Christ and his teaching.  In Judaism you had to be a Jew by race.  That was the boundary of membership.  If you were a Jew then you were in.  If you were not a Jew, you were out.

Social groups often coalesce around race, or class, or some other shared social characteristic.  Ancient religions did the same sometimes.  Julius Caesar did not believe in the gods, but he was High Priest.  It didn’t matter what he believed: he was “in”, whether he believed or not.

This can be taken very far.  An ancient sun temple was more like a nuclear power station than a church.  It existed, and the priests existed, to ensure that the sun came up in the morning.  Do the rituals.  Who cares what the priest thinks: what matters is to get the result.  This sort of thinking is why ancient temples were often very small inside their enclosures.

These sorts of religions may be called “communal”.  The boundary is the community.

But Christianity didn’t use community as a boundary.  It used belief.  If you shared the beliefs, you were “in”; if you did not, you were “out”.   The same is true of other “creedal” religions.  This process is why creeds – formal statements of belief, often designed to combat some local threat – appear in the apostolic age and later.  Indeed they are still issued even today: the Nashville Statement is one such.

The nature of Christianity means that orthodoxy is part of the very basis on which a church exists.  Equally, the appearance of a group teaching something else is a threat to the very existence of the church.

This is a pattern, repeated again and again throughout church history.  It is quite extraordinary to find that it is routinely denied, therefore.

The work in which this denial was first set forth seems to be the work of Walter Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum, issued in 1934.  It was translated into English by Robert Kraft in the 1971 as Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.

Some years ago I attempted to read Bauer’s book, and I wrote five articles about what I found.  I didn’t get past chapter one.  I quickly became very suspicious of his methods.  But then I discovered evidence of deliberate falsification of the evidence.  I lost interest after that.  Yet Bauer’s book has enjoyed a vogue ever since.

Another book summarises what Bauer says:

Bauer has shown that second-century Christianity was a very mixed bag. There was no ‘pure’ form of Christianity that existed in the beginning which can properly be called ‘orthodoxy’. In fact there was no uniform concept of orthodoxy at all – only different forms of Christianity competing for the loyality of believers. [2]

Yet in fact even a layman like myself, examining the primary sources and examining Bauer’s book, can see that it is a fraud.  Even a layman like myself can see that such a statement such as this involves the same old assumptions that won’t bear examination.  It comes out in stuff like this:

The concept of orthodoxy only began to emerge in the struggle between different viewpoints – the party that won claimed the title ‘orthodox’ for itself!

This would be news to St Paul.

It also involves assumptions about the gnostic heretics.  It assumes that, like the Christians, these were interested in transmitting an unchanged body of teaching.

But the gnostics did not do this.  Every gnostic believed something different.  The pupils of Valentinus started their own cults.  They did so, precisely because the teaching of Christ was not important to them.  Tertullian has pointed out how each of them is connected to philosophical schools in vogue at the time.

Let us remember how ancient philosophy worked.  If you were a philosopher, you earned your living by making a name for yourself, and then attracting paying pupils.  You taught your distinctive teaching to them.  That was how you made money.  Indeed in late antiquity visitors to Athens could find themselves kidnapped on landing in order to force them to study with a particular philosopher.  Big money could be involved.

There were schools (haereses) such as the Stoics, etc; but even these varied among themselves.

This restless need for innovation was the motor for the continual speculation and intellectual exploration characteristic of Greek philosophy.  It arose from the burning need to teach something new in order to live.  At the top end it resulted in scientific advances.  At the bottom end it meant that every sophist, soothsayer or magician would eagerly pounce on something new.

The Greek magical papyri preserve spells in which various “power words” are incorporated; anything that would give it zing!  Some even use the name of Christ in this way.  We read in Acts of one bunch who tried doing just this, and got into trouble! (Acts 19:11-17)

It is natural therefore that the arrival of Christianity would attract the interest of such people.  This is why the early Christians refer to them as heretics, followers of the philosophical schools and their practices.  This is why the gnostics are interested in gnosis, knowledge, rather than faith.  It’s a whole different world.

There is not a shred of evidence that any of these people had any connection with Christ or his apostles.  Indeed they themselves acknowledge that the apostles did not teach their doctrines openly in the church.  These are “the secret teachings”, as they refer to them.  But if so, why need we believe that they have any connection whatever with the apostles?  Where is the evidence?

Bauer himself was not very bothered about the little matter of evidence.  He wrote:

When we ask how and when Christianity gained influence in this region, it is unnecessary to begin with a survey of the sources.

A systematic review of evidence was the last thing that he needed.

The ancient data says what it says.  It says that the gnostics were late-comers, outsiders, peddling stuff ripped off from Greek philosophy.  This appears to describe them all exactly.  Indeed we find such people even today, eager to acquire the churches, their money and their people in order to use them for their own purposes.  Such a process has happened in every age.  Unless, that is, we believe the Bauer theory, when it did not happen until after 325.

It all seems rather rubbish to me.

In fact let’s press this a bit further.  We saw above:

In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted that there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.

So what are we saying here?  Jesus was a historical person.  He taught something.  Are we saying that Jesus taught that there were 365 gods?  Or not?  Yes or no?  Or that there were 30?  Yes or no?

There is not the slightest evidence for either of these claims, and the author of those words knew it.

By contrast the ancient sources tell us that John the Apostle lived to 100 AD, and that his disciple, Polycarp, came to Rome in 155 AD.  We know this from Irenaeus, who wrote around 180 AD and who knew Polycarp.  That’s evidence.

We can choose to ignore the evidence, but it is still there.  Even if we do ignore the evidence, it is reasonably obvious that Jesus did not teach at one time that there was 1 god, at another that there were 30, at another that there were 365; and that there is not the slightest evidence that he did.  It is, in a Jewish context, quite inconceivable.  So why on earth are we treating the dafter claims of people who never knew him as in some way equivalent to the testimony of those who did?

This does not strike me as scholarly.  It strikes me as nonsense.

Bauer’s work has a sinister background.  The practical effect of demolishing the accepted history of the first and second century is to make Jesus the Jew a semi-mythical figure.  It advances Bauer’s claim that Marcion, who rejected the Old Testament, was the real deal.  The same period sees German academics asserting that Galilee was non-Jewish, and that Jesus was an Aryan.

Bauer’s claims can hardly have been unwelcome to those who controlled academic funding in Germany in 1934.

Nor, I fear, can the English translation have been unwelcome to the progressive Christian-hating types who controlled academic funding in the UK and USA after 1970.

Let us hope that the popularity of the theory isn’t merely an example of the tendency of the humanities, on matters of controversy, to reflect the wishes of those non-scholars who control university funding.

  1. [1]Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, Oxford University Press, 2003, p.2.
  2. [2]James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p.3.

11 thoughts on “Diversity of teaching and early Christianity

  1. I have had some difficulty finding anything like a definitive statement or attempt at proof for the claim.

    I’ve actually run into some!

    They use the Gnostic gospels. Even the *really* strange ones. I was a teen who was poorly taught and even I was recognizing they were, ah, reaching.

    Which is probably why nobody’s used the “proofs” on you.
    (maybe also you don’t run in the Ancient Alien type circles?)

    I have seen a much gentler version of it with decent evidence– short version, the saints who held views that are now against settled teaching, but it was still a going argument and thus of legitimate disagreement. (Names not coming to mind, sorry.)

    This would be news to St Paul.

    Oh, nicely said.

  2. Some of the diversity is very early and suggests somebody has been lying. For example, despite Jesus giving the ‘great commission’ (Matthew 28:19-20) and allegedly instructing the apostles on things concerning the kingdom of God for 40 days (Acts 1:3), we find the later Jewish Church angry and flummoxed at Peter for having eaten with the uncircumcised Gentile Cornelius (Acts 11:1-3), as if what he did was as obviously unacceptable as adultery.

    And the church doesn’t discover this was ok, by being reminded that Jesus taught it…they discover it is ok, after Peter gives them a special revelation about how fellowshipping with believing gentiles is ok…then they act like the concept of Gentile salvation was this shocking unexpected thing they’d never have guessed was true except for Peter’s telling them the bizarre Gentile-vision he had (Acts 11:18). That is, for the ancient Jewish church, what Jesus taught did not convey to them that it was permissible for Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to fellowship together. They only discovered this due to Peter’s “revelation”.

    And Acts 11:18 does not show the church being dazzled that salvation is merely a one-step process for Gentiles. Read the verse. The Jewish church are expressing amazment that God has granted Gentiles the repentance that leads to life, thus logically imply this church before this believed God had NOT granted unto Gentiles the repentance that leads to life. Clearly, what they are talking about is Gentile salvation itself, not whether it requires a one-step or two-step process.

    This particular variation plagues Christianity because it exists within the canonical material, and yet the entire canon cannot possibly be logically consistent: either Jesus taught Gentile salvation and thus the later Jewish church wouldn’t have found it so shocking (Luke’s story is a lie) or Jesus didn’t teach Gentile salvation, and the gospel stories showing him to be Gentile friendly were corruptions of the early text or tradition.

    Sure, you can argue that the Jewish church was just dumb as a bag of hammers and “they just didn’t get it”, but that excuse does not foist an intellectual obligation upon skeptics. They were marveling that Gentiles could be saved, period, which flies in the face of the Great Commission that Jesus allegeldy gave them some years previous.

    This is just one example of the diversity of Christianity shown in the NT. Apologetics explanations for why the Christians in Paul’s day were so disagreed on certain matters, are not very convincing.

  3. “The ancient data says what it says. It says that the gnostics were late-comers, outsiders, peddling stuff ripped off from Greek philosophy”

    Late? No. The earlier you date 1st John, the earlier you date the gnostics that he battled. His appears to have been battling docetic tendencies…which means the diversity-problem you are trying to limit to post-canonical development…that type of variation that suggests authentic inconsistency from Jesus or the apostles, began existing in the days of the apostles.

    And since there is plenty of evidence that Jesus and James were Judaizers, there is, without a doubt, an inconsistency between Paul and them, so that under your own logic, Paul’s having come along later would rationally warrant the conclusion that HE is the one who is in the wrong.

    The problems that are foisted on apologists by the “too much diversity in early Christianity” view appear within the canon. If other skeptics waste time on questions of Cerinthus and Marcion and Valentius, well, that doesn’t mean you are answering the weighter arguments.

  4. Caesar’s mom, Aurelia, was very pious. And because Caesar got to be Pontifex Maximus, she got to host the rites of the Bona Dea at her house.

    Of course, that didn’t go well because of Clodius the friendly neighborhood creepy guy; and Aurelia actually testified in court against him because she was so incensed.

  5. The failure of the jury, bribed by Pompey, to punish Clodius really marked the collapse of Roman justice. Cicero’s biting remarks in the senate angered Clodius who tried to heckle:

    Clodius: So, you bought a house!
    Cicero: Is that like saying I bought a jury?
    Clodius: The jury gave you no credit!
    Cicero: On the contrary, 23 credited me, and rest gave YOU no credit – they got their money in advance.

  6. The “Diversity” was known to come about, as Jesus foretold a growth of weeds/tares in his people and they would take over and not be something that could be separated from the wheat/true believers until the Last Days/Harvest period. The apostles and Biblical NT writers speak of false apostles and teachers even existing while they were alive, fitting the wheat/weed illustration of Jesus. Consequently after John’s death (End of 1st century CE), the last apostle, the “church” became more and more weed filled and more and more doctrines came into existence. Again as foretold. The so-called “orthodox” church only existed for a short while and then became weed filled. So no later “Church” was truly Orthodox, they just made such a claim.

  7. Most of Bauer’s specific claims have been rejected today, and modern academic discussion about early Christian diversity does not involve the suggestion that the earliest Christians believed in multiple gods, even if Ehrman’s sensationalistic wording might lead one to believe they could have been. (They were Jews before they were Christians, and Jews are not polytheists!)

    But there was a great deal of disagreement about what Christianity should look like, even if the Sethian Gnostics were extreme outliers. As Sheila McGinn puts it in her article in The Early Christian World, “As today, believers followed their best lights, disagreed on significant issues, argued about them, and sometimes castigated, stereotyped and marginalized those who disagreed with them. It remains important to learn what these early Christian groups borrowed from outsiders, revived from older traditions, or generated anew in light of their changing circumstances.”

    Paul is an interesting example. McGinn points to Paul’s own account of his conflicts with the Christian community in Antioch (Gal. 2) and his uncertainty that the community in Jerusalem will find his work acceptable (Rom. 15:31). She concludes “We are left with a picture not of Paul as a spokesperson for the ‘orthodox’ or ‘mainstream’ view, but rather a marginalized Paul dissenting from the prevailing view, working from within – or perhaps along the fringes – for reform of an apparently well-established practice of having two ranks of converts, the first for men of Jewish origin, and the second for women and gentile men. This dissident Paul is castigated by many of his contemporaries for teaching an inadequate gospel, and is even rejected for engaging in practices which are called idolatrous (e.g., Rev. 2:14, 20; cf. 1 Cor. 8)!”

    David Brakke’s book on Gnosticism gives concrete examples of diversity even among figures who would later be dubbed orthodox. “The Church and critical scholarship depict as ‘proto-orthodox’ people and groups who might well have initiated trajectories that would not have culminated in Nicene orthodoxy and who might be surprised to find themselves depicted as ‘the same.’ Clement and Irenaeus may have agreed that the Gnostics were wrong about the character of the God of Genesis, but Clement was skeptical of bishops and claimed that Christ taught a secret gnosis to his apostles, who then passed it down to learned teachers like himself. Valentinus would have agreed with this idea, while Irenaeus would not. But even Irenaeus himself was more similar to the Gnostics he hated than he would care to admit. He condemned the Gnostics for creating an elaborate series of divinities and heavenly realms and for tracing salvation genealogically through the sons of Adam. But Irenaeus himself described a series of seven heavens ruled by various powers, and he, too, traced the blessings of God genealogically through the sons of Noah… Proto-orthodoxy itself was highly diverse and, in many respects, not very orthodox.”

  8. I’m sorry about the delay in responding – a bunch of useful posts were caught in the spam filter.

    There was and is a great deal of real theological diversity among the early Christians, particularly on issues that were only firmed up later. Some Christians today are baptists, some are not, for instance. But I think these comments tend to confuse the genuine diversity among Christians at all times even if they share the scriptures and creeds, and class it alongside people who respected neither and merely sought to attach the name of Christ to anything at all.

    I realise that some would deny that there is or should be any such division. But Christians, then or now, do not think this; and nor can they, as I said earlier. There must be a doctrinal boundary somewhere. Much of this sort of argument is really special pleading designed to assert that the word “Christian” has no real meaning beyond “someone who wants to be called a Christian”. None of the fathers would agree with that, and it must be nonsense.

  9. My apologies, @Barry – the spam filter ate your comments.

    John wrote his gospel and presumably his letter around 90 AD, if we follow the suggestions in Eusebius etc. This also makes clear that he encountered Cerinthus. I see no reason why he should not have encountered the docetists. Docetism was inevitable: the crucifixion of Christ was shameful in the Roman world, and those people inclined to make up their religion would certainly introduce it. But if an apostle himself says that it isn’t what Jesus said, who are we to disagree?

    I don’t think that we are discussing Judaising here, but paganising. Surely the relation of the early church to the synagogue, with which it genuinely had links, is a rather different issue?

Leave a Reply