How Diverse Was Early Christianity? Clearing Up a Few Misconceptions

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

January 18, 2016

For some critical scholars, the most important fact about early Christianity was its radical theological diversity. Christians couldn’t agree on much of anything, we are told. All we have in the early centuries were a variety of Christian factions all claiming to be original and all claiming to be apostolic.

Sure, one particular group–the group we now know as “orthodox” Christianity–won those theological wars.  But why (the argument goes) should we think this group is any more valid than the groups that lost? What if another group (say the Gnostic Christians) had won?  If they had, then what we call “Christianity” would look radically different.

Thus, according to these critics, in the second and third centuries there really was no such thing as “Christianity.”  Rather there were “Christiantities” (plural), all of which were locked in a battle for theological supremacy.

This entire line of thinking, of course, goes back to Walter Bauer’s 1934 book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. But, its most ardent supporter today is Bart Ehrman.  Ehrman describes precisely this view of early Christianity:

The wide diversity of early Christianity may be seen above all by 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 that insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365 (Lost Christianities, 2).

Ehrman then proceeds to provide a laundry list of many of the conflicting beliefs held by early Christians–a list that no doubt would (and was certainly designed to) overwhelm and shock the average reader.

So, what can be said in response to such claims?  Was early Christianity really as diverse as Ehrman claims?  Was there no credible standard by which Christians in the second century could tell the difference between true and false beliefs?

There is much to be said in answer to these questions. I have already addressed some of them in a prior blog post (here) and, of course, in my book The Heresy of Orthodoxy.

But, in this short post, I simply want to observe (and respond to) something noteworthy about Ehrman’s methodology. Notice that as he described groups that believed in 2 or 30 or 365 gods, that he refers to these groups as “Christians.”

And why does he do this?  Because, as he said, these people “understood themselves to be followers of Jesus.”

But, the use of this terminology by Ehrman is a bit misleading. Sure, these people claimed the name of Jesus.  That is not in doubt. But, it strains credibility to think that this is a title that accurately and fairly describes their theology.

The fact of the matter is that Christians did not believe in 2 or 30 or 365 gods.  Christians were committed not only to the Old Testament but to a monotheistic system. The historical evidence for this is overwhelming.

The groups that believed in, say, 365 gods were in fact, Gnostics. In particular, Ehrman is referring to Basilides here (and they weren’t really “gods” in the way we think of it, but more like creator-angels).

And the theology of the Gnostics was so out of bounds that it could not be recognizably given the label “Christianity” with any historical or theological credibility.

But, it is not difficult to see why scholars insist on using labels like “Christianity” to describe such groups.  The answer is because it creates the impression that there was greater diversity than there really was.

The more the label “Christianity” can be tossed around indiscriminately, then the more it appears that Christians could believe just about anything (and did). In strips the word of all its meaning.

What you have in Ehrman’s statement above, then, is a bit of semantic slight of hand.  Yes, it is defensible under the heading that “these people thought they were Christians and who am I to say otherwise?”  But, at the same time, it remains substantially misleading and, in the end, unhelpful.

To take a modern example, consider the UFO religious group “Heaven’s Gate” led by Marshall Applewhite. This group believed that they would, upon death, be transported to an alien ship following the Hale-Bopp comet—a belief that led 39 of them to commit mass suicide in 1997. They also claimed to follow Jesus and to be fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation.

What if a newspaper reporter tracking these events went on the evening news and declared, “Christians believe in UFO’s and also believe that they should commit suicide in order to join an alien spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.”

When challenged about such a statement, the reporter could say, “Well, this group claims to be Christian!” But, I think we all know that defense is inadequate.  No one with journalist integrity would speak in such a misleading way when they know that, historically speaking, this does not represent the Christian faith.

In the end, not everyone who claims to be a follower of Christianity ought to be considered a follower of Christianity. If that basic principle were applied to our study of the second century in a balanced and fair way, I think much (though not all) of the rhetoric about radical diversity would have to be modified.

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